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All About Execution Part II: Making the Smart Filter

Nathaniel Padgett Product Stories

Welcome to Part II of our series about building the Smart Filter. We’ve been writing about the Smart Filter a lot lately. Can you blame us? Our newest product is the best thing to happen in air filtration since the upright air purifier! As one would expect from any new parent, we’re absolutely gushing over our newborn. We started in May with an early glimpse at the Smart Filter and our Keen Air Care replenishment program. Then, earlier this month, we shared our inspiration and motivation for inventing the Smart Filter in Part I of this series. We officially launched the Smart Filter last week and all four sizes are selling like hot cakes – 4”x10” Smart Filters are already installed and filtering air in homes throughout the U.S. and Canada.


As we watched the Smart Filter’s successful launch, we reflected on what it took to get us to this point. Companies don’t often open up about how they make their products, but we realized that the Smart Filter’s story is so unique that we couldn’t keep it to ourselves. In the same vein as our “Manufacturing the Smart Vent” series last year, here’s a look at how the Smart Filter came to be. It’s a story of quick action, scrappy execution, and the best intern ever. Have you been looking for a quintessential startup story? You just found it.

Ideation, prototyping, testing

November 2015 was a busy time for us. We shipped tens of thousands of Smart Vents to 600 Lowe’s stores nationwide and delivered the first Smart Vent pre-orders to our earliest customers with SmartThings hubs. Parallel to all of this, our Chief Product Officer, Will McLeod was busy building CAD models for a new filtration product our CEO Nayeem had the idea for just a few weeks prior. Will designed a filter that could magnetically clip into the steel bar that reinforces every Herringbone faceplate, allowing for full coverage of a Smart Vent’s louvers and adding comprehensive air filtration to any Smart Vent installed in a home. The challenge was sourcing filtration material that would be an order of magnitude better than any other HVAC air filter on the market.


While researching materials, Will consulted with his friends in the Environmental Chemistry lab at Harvard University, and reached out to the filtration experts at 3M. He explained what Keen Home hoped to accomplish and they came up with a sample of their specialty High Airflow Filtration (HAF) material so we could start prototyping.

 

3M’s HAF technology was exactly what we needed

3M’s HAF technology was exactly what we needed

 

A couple weeks later, we received the samples and Will got to work. He went to a local 3D printing shop to print the first 20 prototypes of the Smart Filter frame and sourced an active charcoal layer to counteract volatile organic compounds (VOCs). With all of the raw materials at the ready, he hand stitched the first prototypes together and sent them to his friend at Harvard for testing. Between the lab and our test home we tested these earliest prototypes for 45 days to measure efficacy and impact on airflow. As is usually the case, these tests demonstrated the need to tweak our initial design.

 

Will hand sewed the earliest Smart Filter prototypes himself

Demand assessment and manufacturing

Once we had settled on a design and were happy with the Smart Filter’s performance, it was time to start thinking about mass production. We officially announced the Smart Filter at CES in January 2016 and quickly received hundreds of reservations. To get ahead of this growing interest, Will was already looking for manufacturing partners to help us produce large quantities of the Smart Filter’s plastic frame. He spent weeks speaking with NYC-based 3D printing and injection molding shops, laser cutting businesses, and all manner of US and Chinese manufacturers. After reviewing dozens of quotes and exchanging hundreds of emails, he settled on working with Protolabs, a Minnesota-based firm that specializes in quick turn injection molding.


Protolabs proved to be the right partner for the first run of Smart Filters


A challenge every hardware startup faces when launching a new product is determining how many units to produce to meet immediate and future demand. While you don’t want to be stuck keeping extra inventory at a warehouse, you also don’t want to underproduce supply that doesn’t match demand. We had a rough idea of how many Smart Filters we could expect to move within a month of launch, but past that was still uncertain. Smart Vents and Smart Bridges were back in pre-order by this time, so we decided to give ourselves extra time to measure demand by making all but 4”x10” Smart Vent-compatible Smart Filters ‘pre-orderable’, with an expected shipping window that coincided with Smart Vent pre-orders (Fall and Winter 2016). We hit “go” on 4x10 Smart Filters based on reservation data and Protolabs went to work injection molding them for us. They went from specification to completed tooling in only 15 days!

Time to start building

Soon after kicking off manufacturing, we received a huge box of our injection molded Smart Filter bodies, which we decided to assemble ourselves in New York City. Not only did this give us complete control over assembly and Q/A–an important step to take in the beginning–but it allowed us to live a dream we have had since the day Keen Home was founded: to make a product right here in New York.


The raw materials used to manufactured and assemble Smart Filters right here in the USA


The injection molded parts were just that: parts. The actual filters still need to be assembled, with the 3M HAF filter and carbon layer needing to be sewn together, just as Will had hand sewn the earliest prototypes. Luckily, we had just brought on a new marketing intern who also happened to be a skilled seamstress. Eileen Lee, an NYU Stern undergraduate student who had previously interned for a fashion startup, joined our community team to work on digital marketing initiatives. When we learned she could use a sewing machine, we teamed her up with Will to assemble the raw materials of the Smart Filter into sellable products. Over the following weeks, Eileen and Will churned out hundreds of 4x10 Smart Filters, cutting 3M HAF material into tidy rectangles, inserting them into the injection molded frames from Protolabs, and sewing on the active charcoal layer to finish the product.

The finished product, Smart Vent-bound.

On August 17th, we officially launched the Smart Filter to our online store. The orders started pouring in immediately, and thanks to Eileen and Will’s hard work, we were (and continue to be) able to fulfill all 4”x10” Smart Filter orders within 48 hours of purchase. We’re quickly selling through our initial batch of filters and the team is working feverishly to build more for what is shaping up to be a persistent tide of interest.

As members of the startup community, we’re often inundated with “startup stories” of scrappy teams hustling throughout the night to ship code at the last minute. For us, our experience building the Smart Filter by hand (in New York City nonetheless) is probably the most ‘startup’ thing we have ever done. So far it’s paying off. Our next step is to manufacture the next 3 three sizes and move production to a factory, since we have learned so much by doing nearly everything in-house. If you work for a connected device startup we recommend giving this method a try. It’s not easy, but there is no substitute for having complete control over your production schedule, especially in the beginning.

The story of how we made the Smart Filter doesn't end with this piece. There is a whole software component that we haven’t yet covered. In Part III of this series we’ll discuss the software and UI changes we made to the Keen Home app to accommodate Smart Filters and our upcoming Keen Air Care replenishment program. Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for the final installment of “All About Execution.”


This series is the start of an ongoing discussion about our experience starting and running a connected device company. Be sure to check in regularly for future blog posts covering topics ranging from materials sourcing to startup financing. Our hope is to help other entrepreneurs and startup teams navigate the complex world of starting a company by sharing our experiences from building our own.



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