This is the story of how we invented the Gryp Keychain sanitary device.
It all started with soul. Well, on a subway in Seoul, South Korea that is. It was my first time leaving the country, and I was experiencing culture shock more than I had anticipated. I only knew two words in Korean and I was trying to navigate though a huge city. That leads us back to the subway.
It took a lot of guessing and pointing at signs to figure out which way I was going, but I eventually found the correct line and boarded a train. When I got on, it was packed. I’m from a small town of 2,000 people and there were at least that many people surrounding me. As I wriggled my way into the mob of bodies, the temperature rose and my personal space vanished. Most of the seats were saved for senior citizens, and the mass of people were standing up shoulder to shoulder. Since the seats were completely out of the question, the prime real estate for anyone in the mob was a handle or pole. As the subway picked up speed and began to negotiate the bends and curves of the track, a handle to hold was my saving grace.
As I looked around at the signs on the subway, I saw cartoon characters of germs dancing around mischievously, with Korean text I couldn’t understand. The signs had the red crossed out circle reminiscent of the “No Smoking” signs I had seen back home and the message was clear. “Do not touch. Germs are everywhere”. I looked up at my hand grasping the dirty rubber handle and grimaced. I glanced at my phone and checked the time; I had almost an hour left of this uncomfortable experience.
By the time I reached my destination, I was exhausted. I filed out of the sliding doors and climbed a couple flights of stairs out of the underground transportation center. There were cell phone shops, clothing stores, food and restrooms. My blood sugar was crashing, but I wanted to wash my hands before I got some food. The bathroom was just as busy as the subway car and I had to wait in line to use the sink. There was no soap and no paper towel. I rinsed my hands, wiped them on my pants and headed out feeling unsettled. When I stopped to grab some food, I ate my burger with my freshly...rinsed hands.
The next day, I wanted to bring some tissues with my on the subway to avoid touching the handle with. I also didn’t want to stand out even more than I already did being one of the few awkward Americans clearly out of their element. I looked around me each day, and noticed more and more the surgical masks people were wearing. Combined with the signs, it seemed obvious that there was a problem to solve. I started dreaming up a small finger-tube that I could secretly wear to avoid touching anything. I told my girlfriend about it and she laughed it off. I felt like there was something more there, but my visa soon expired and I flew back to Colorado where uncomfortable subway rides surrounded by people and germs are replaced by big open spaces and mountains.
A few months later, I found myself moving to Las Vegas with a new girlfriend. When we arrived in the city, it was about as dirty as Korea. And not only that, but the 7eleven stores’ nasty door handles were sometimes wrapped in a filthy duct taped towel in an attempt to shield the metal handle from the desert sun’s intense heat. I had to reach out, and grab the slightly brown, once white rag and enter the business to buy some snacks. If you’ve ever been to a 7eleven, they generally don’t have public restrooms. So when I ate my snacks, I would think about that towel.
I wondered if anyone else was trying to avoid touching these dirty public surfaces as well. When I started looking around, there were clear confirmations of other people doing the same things I was. The first thing I noticed was that businesses that didn’t put a trash can next to their bathroom door, oftentimes had a small pile of crumpled up paper towels right next to the door. Where were they coming from? I knew, because I too was using paper towels to open the door handle. In fact, so many people do this, most businesses have a trash can next to their bathroom door. But, many businesses are cutting down on janitorial costs and waste by implementing energy-efficient hand driers like the Dyson Blade. In these bathrooms, there was no option for using a paper towel to avoid the door handle on the way out. And after personally witnessing the amount of people that do not wash their hands after using the public toilet, I was not comfortable touching the door handles on bathrooms that were hand drier exclusive.
In these situations, I found myself using my sleeve to open the door handle. But after realizing that my sleeve, particularly near my wrist where I was using it on the door handle, would end up touching my mouth sometimes. Furthermore, the sleeve wasn’t even made of metal like the door handle, and likely bred bacteria even more than the handle itself. And sometimes the handle was wet! I would either force myself to believe it was water from someone washing their hands... or go back and wash my hands again. Whew.
When I told my new girlfriend about my the idea I had in Korea and how much I hated touching the door handles in Las Vegas, she was excited. She immediately suggested that I make a prototype out of silicone. I disagreed, and told her that I had a great idea to make it out of plastic. She shrugged it off and we headed out to buy some plastic cutting boards at Wal-Mart. I cut out the prototype, and it was too slippery to get any traction on a circular door handle. I had even included a second area for the thumb in an effort to resolve the issue, but the idea was stalling.
A few days later, my girlfriend arrived home with a colorful silicone oven mitt. She excitedly told me that it was made of silicone and she still thought it would be the perfect material for our little project. She told me that silicone was used in medical applications like breast implants, and that it stays much cleaner than most other materials. After some quick googling and Wikipedia-ing, we found out it was true. Apparently, silicone is “inherently resistant to microbiological growth”.
Not only was silicone bacteria resistant, it was also super grippy on almost anything. When we tried it out on the circular door handle on our apartment, it worked so well that we didn’t even need the second thumb loop. We could easily open the door handle with only two fingers, and I remembered holding the subways strap with as few fingers as possible in Seoul. We refined our prototype and reduced our large pinching device into a small spiral.
We traced our prototype onto the silicone oven mitt and cut it out with an X-acto knife. I used a needle and thread to sew the silicone to itself after finding out that absolutely no glue anywhere will make silicone rubber stick to itself. The next day, I drove around Las Vegas with my little brother buying every silicone oven mitt we could find at all the different Wal-Marts. When we got home, I cut out a bunch of prototypes. When my lanyard broke and I found myself searching for a suitable keychain for my house keys, the true breakthrough happened. I cut a hole in the device and put a metal grommet in it to protect the silicone from the keyring. Now I could bring our little device with me without having to remember to bring it before I left the house. Now, whenever I was at 7eleven I just reached into my pocket and pulled out my keys. They were always with me. We made a bunch of these prototypes and gave them away to our friends and neighbors.
Over the next few months, we began to find out where the weak points were in our design. Our original idea to have a grommet protecting the key-ring hole proved to be ineffective and led to the silicone tearing around it. We fixed this by simply using a hole punch and omitting the grommet. The silicone didn’t tear, and we realized that we were over-engineering something simple. After a handful of modifications, we were starting to get somewhere.
When we were confident that our prototype was efficient and functional enough to be sold, we began contacting industrial engineers. It was a mess. We met with about five different firms, and had varying degrees of failure and complications. At one point, an engineer loved out idea and tried to get us to sign a ‘reversed NDA’ on accident... in which case we would have signed the rights to our idea over to his firm. There was even a clause in the contract that stated a prior agreements were nullified by the NDA, rendering our handshake agreements null. It was scary, and we wound up turning away from professionals to accomplish our task. Where does one find local semi-professionals? Craigslist, baby. We logged on and searched for “industrial engineer”. The next day, we met at a Starbucks, signed a generic Google Docs NDA and talked about the idea. He agreed to complete the 3D CAD files for $150, a small fraction of the average $1200 price tag we received from various firms. Should we mention that our Craigslist friend was born in India? I’m not sure, but after the treatment and price qoutes we received from our fellow Americans, we were delighted for the change of pace. The new engineer was incredibly helpful, incredibly knowledgeable, and overall a really nice person. We was passionate about product design and enjoyed spending his free-time honing his skills by bringing new products to market. He is a true genius and we still work with him to this day on projects.
Oddly enough, not a single one of these high-priced Industrial Design firms suggested that we make our device flat. Our original idea was to have steel molds made for our silicone device to be cast in it’s tubular shape. This created a huge headache when it came to shipping because our device had such an odd shape that it cost more to ship it than it did to buy it. When I mentioned this issue to the guy I was buying weed from in San Diego, he grabbed the device from me and demanded that I cut a hole “right here” and make some sort of “tab” that goes into the hole. When I told him that I didn’t think it would work, he laughed it off and didn’t mention it again. Later that night when I was making prototypes, I decided to try his tab idea out. It worked. Really well. It also solved out shipping issue. We could now ship a flat 1mm thin piece of silicone in any envelope using a single stamp. One simple tab inserted into a hole and the device was fully assembled.
After a year of sales and saving, we made a few adjustments to our design and reached out to three manufacturers. One of them was in Minnesota, two of them were in Shenzhen. It would cost us roughly five times as much for the steel mold, and three times as much to produce each product. As much as we desired to manufacture in Minnesota (I’m a Golden Gopher) we knew we couldn’t sell a keychain for more than a few bucks. It took about 50 confusing, Engrish-laden emails to get our device made, but we took it step-by-step and soon had our new prototypes in hand. After the go-ahead from us, a small factory somewhere in Shenzhen started pumping out Gryps by the thousands.
And that is the story of how we invented the Gryp.