Stellar Startups: Your key(board) to success

Holon company IKBS can engrave a keyboard's characters to make it bi-, tri- or quad-lingual.

keyboards 88 (photo credit: )
keyboards 88
(photo credit: )
In the end, it's the basic commodities that really count. Without a good computer, for example, all the hi-tech database programming tricks are just ideas in the head of a geek. And without a keyboard, you wouldn't even be able to write a simple letter. Much less hang 10 on that database! That's right: Keyboards are an important part of the tech revolution, too, and deserve to be recognized for their role. Lest you think, however, that there is little that can be done to technically improve the old workhorse, Raviv Orfeli of Holon-based IKBS-International Keyboard Solutions has some news for you: Hi-tech laser engraving techniques can make your laptop's keyboard more worldly. If your laptop, PDA or cellphone needs to "speak" a foreign language, IKBS will engrave the characters on its keyboard, turning it into a bi-, tri- or even quad-lingual. Israelis who commonly buy laptop computers in the US - or, for that matter, Chinese students taking university courses in New York, translators, diplomats or anyone else who needs access to a language other than the one on their keyboard - have had to make do with "sticker solutions," where they affix a sticker with the alternative language on the keys. While stickers are readily available and cheap, they look cheap, says Orfeli. Besides which, they often fade after several months' use and sometimes come loose. Basically, it's a messy look - one that doesn't go well with the professional demeanor of businesspeople who need to make a good impression, or students who want to make a cool one. "People are fed up with those messy stickers, or overlays," Orfeli says. "They look so unprofessional and cumbersome. Imagine an executive going into a meeting with a half-peeling sticker on his key. Not a great first impression." Instead, he suggests an alternative: engraving the characters of the languages users would otherwise use a sticker to mount to display on their keyboards. The engraving is done with a laser, creating a thin depression in each key, which is then filled in with paint. With this process, up to four languages can be "installed" on a keyboard, achieving both the utilitarian goal of being able to more easily identify keys, as well as keeping laptops clean and sober. Technically speaking, Orfeli has been in the keyboard business for years. But he says he has perfected his company's unique engraving techniques, refining them to the point where the IKBS system can help on-the-go users of not just laptops, but also PDAs and cellphones. IKBS has in recent months opened a sales office and production facility in the US (called IKBS-USA); the company has already struck deals with several large laptop retailers, who will recommend the company's service to potential customers, and ship laptops to IKBS's offices for customized engraving. When he first got into the computer business 20 years ago in Holon, Orfeli says, "Laptops were brand new to the computer market and only had English characters on the keys. Customers also wanted Hebrew letters on the keys, so I took white-out and painted onto the keys." They soon faded, though, to the chagrin of Orfeli and the dismay of livid customers; stickers, the stopgap solution, were also unsatisfactory. Eventually, he got the idea of using a laser device to engrave the characters onto a keyboard. But it took years to prefect the "light touch" necessary to pull off an engraving job successfully, an especially challenging job because you get only one chance to do it right. So far, the response has been extremely positive, Orfeli says. He has contracts with a number of entities to engrave organization keyboards, including a large US government institution that provides advisers to foreign countries. With laptops all the rage on college campuses, he says, IKBS has student representatives at schools in the New York area with significant immigrant populations (students from the Far East have especially taken to the system), and the company is even working with several Jewish high schools in the metropolitan area, outfitting student laptop keyboards with Hebrew engraving. And, of course, the IKBS team is also active in Israel, with customers traveling from near and far to get their keyboards engraved at the company's Holon workshop - while they wait. The service's applications extend far beyond the office or college lecture hall, Orfeli says. "For example," he says, "if there was a very expensive piece of medical equipment that was produced with an English-language keyboard that was to be used in a country where English was not widely understood, we could engrave the device's keyboard with native-language characters, or even pictures, to ensure that users know what button to press and when." The company even has a deal with the American Association of Retired Persons, whose growing numbers of baby boomer computer-hip retirees are seeking keyboards with larger characters than standard keyboards come with. Industries using specialized hi-tech equipment can also benefit, Orfeli says. "When users need access to just a few keys," he says, "we can engrave those keys appropriately and paint over the ones not in use, preventing operators from pressing the wrong button, as well as speeding up data entry." Engraving is likely to be the only way to get alternative languages on a keyboard under these circumstances, Orfeli says. "The laptop factory in China or the US manufacturer of a sophisticated medical device is not going to add characters for use by Finnish staff, unless they order thousands of units," he says, adding that it's a situation tailor made for IKBS's engraving service. The engraved key can appear in a variety of colors - white, black, yellow, blue and purple - making it easier for users to identify when switching between functions. And IKBS will even remove stickers already placed on the keyboard by customers who have decided to take "a step up." Orfeli sees only success with the company's foray into US markets. "We have worked with all the major computer and consumer electronics manufacturers," he says. "Included in this list are the industry leaders like IBM, HP, Dell, Apple and Microsoft." IKBS can offer keyboards in no fewer than 54 different languages, Orfeli says. And while developing a method to engrave keyboards may seem like a "lightweight" achievement compared to many of the other innovations by Israeli hi-tech firms, it's one that has potentially a far more practical impact than most. "Everyone today uses a laptop, PDA or smartphone," he says, "and with globalization, more and more people need access to additional languages as well as their native tongues. The market for IKBS's services is huge." [email protected]