Keying a successful venture

After taking a leave of absence from her studies to kickstart a keyboard business, chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate Ana Oliveira Kannan has returned to complete her dissertation.

While Ana Oliveira Kannan progressed from the completion of her computer engineering master’s degree toward a chemical engineering doctoral degree, her husband, Andrew, was designing his own computer keyboard. A software engineer, he had a keyboard he liked, but aspired to make it better. 

It turned out that others liked it too. Six months and a crowdfunding campaign later, this little side project in a spare bedroom of the couple’s home began to have a life of its own, and the roots of CannonKeys were laid. 

“We started CannonKeys in 2019 as a way to make custom mechanical keyboards more accessible. It’s tough to know what you want to build as your ‘endgame’ keyboard. We started to try to fill that gap — beginning by selling practice kits, to make different layouts as cheap as possible to try, while also preparing people for their eventual ‘endgame’ build,” Ana explained.

“Our audience is mainly writers, software developers, people who are on their desks the whole day. You know, they say invest in some good shoes and a good bed, but if you spend a good amount of time behind a screen, you should invest in a good desk, a comfortable chair, good monitors, and a good keyboard.”

As co-founder, COO, and the only other employee, Ana began helping the newly formed venture with performance. Then customer support. Then social media, receiving logistics, advertising and a little bit of everything else where needed. 

“We were both doing it as a side gig, and it was taking over our lives,” she said. “I was at a point where I was working toward my Ph.D., TAing large classes for engineering (including ENGN 30), and CannonKeys as well, so I was spread really thin. That's when I talked to the School of Engineering. I said, ‘It looks like our little company might be something. Would you guys be able to give me some time away to put the company in a good place? And then I can come back and continue my studies?’”

While only a small number of doctoral students request to take a professional leave in the course of their studies, school officials agreed that in this instance, a company founder who needed the leave to prioritize focus, was a great reason.


Ana took a two-year break from 2021 until 2023 to find and train new hires, and the company now employs the vast majority of its 20-person payroll remotely. Ana herself does one day a week for CannonKeys and the rest of time she is invested in completing her doctoral degree. “Now I'm just what they call NBD (nothing but dissertation). I'm writing papers and writing my dissertation. The global team at CannonKeys has nine people in our fulfillment team in Central Falls, R.I., and others in Florida, Seattle, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, England, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.”

Walking away from so many years invested in research and education to start a company, Ana knew there were doubts about her return. “But the School of Engineering was very supportive, and (Ph.D. advisor) Eric (Suuberg) has been great about it. If I think about the intersection of the two things, I think of problem solving or data analysis. Making decisions based on data:  looking at the data, analyzing the data, instead of just ‘oh, it feels like we should go this direction.’ My first thought is always to look at the trends, at the data, and then make a decision from there. So you know, there is that very engineering way of looking into things.

“I do use what I learned in graduate school, which is you learn how to solve problems. No matter what problem is thrown your way, you learn how to solve it. I needed to learn Illustrator, so yeah, I design now. Graduate school taught me how to solve any problem that's thrown my way and that translated really well into owning a company.”

With her doctoral research passing the literature search confirming its relevance — nothing that came out was too similar or disproved her previous work — Ana is far enough along to believe she can defend her work on 3D simulations of vapor intrusion mitigation systems as early as May 2024.  

After that, she’s not sure, although she’s thinking about a consulting job that would allow her to divide time between the two career paths near to her heart. “I don't know how feasible that is, but that would be the ideal,” she said. “The company really wants me to come back. But of course I’d want to utilize both things. There just isn't a whole lot of knowledge that I learned from chemical engineering that I use in the company — I did one graph that I used some very basic knowledge — but it's mainly a learning-on-the-job kind of thing, and it would be great to use my education more directly.

“I want a job that's exciting and I'm always learning and that's how the company has been for me. But operating a business is tough, a lot of them fail. And you have to have backup plans. So it'd be great to have experience in multiple areas. I’ll always have my education, and nobody can take that away from me,” she said.