LOCAL HEROES Safety lock invention opens doors for Darren as he battles back from crash
After the recession hit his firm Darren Solan came up with a new twist on an old idea, writes Aine O’connor
IT was on a summer visit to the island of Corfu back in the late 1980s that Darren Solan discovered two of his life’s great passions. The first, diving, would become such an obsession for the Dubliner that, after years of training and taking part in recovery missions, he and his wife Audrey would get married underwater. But it was Solan’s other Corfu discovery — carpentry — that would really change his working life. Such was his love for working with wood that by 1991 he had set up his own business, Creative Carpentry. As the years went by it specialised in designing and fitting kitchens and as the Celtic Tiger began to roar business boomed.
“People were suddenly willing to pay for things,” said Solan. “I’d stand there with an estimate and they wouldn’t even take it, that’s how crazy it got.”
In those early years things were great for the business. Solan had built a workshop in his back garden.
“I thought things couldn’t be better, that in a couple of years I’d be sitting back from the main work.”
But by 2008 things had taken a turn for the worst, for the economy and for Solan. His wife had just had their second baby but dreams of stepping back were put on hold as faced into the unenviable task of having to let his staff go.
“I kept on one apprentice who had nearly finished. It was tough paying a wage to a guy who was sweeping the workshop but I knew if I let him go nowhere was going to employ him — his three years would have been wasted,” said Solan.
After qualifying, the young apprentice left for Australia because, said Solan, there was nothing for him in Ireland even if he had been willing to work for free.
“Nobody could afford the materials, nobody wanted you to do the work. There were weeks when I sat at home and how I didn’t curl up in a ball I don’t know. I would have always thought I was tough. I had come up the hard way. With the diving I had seen a few dead bodies in my day and I would have thought I could handle just about anything. But this was different.”
Solan had been an employer for almost a decade and had paid tax and PRSI for two staff. But as he himself was self-employed there was no assistance available for him.
Closing Creative Carpentry and selling all its assets was one option to try and raise badly needed funds but Solan felt that the company was the only thing he had going for him and that it might give him a day or two of work here or there. For a while he saw no real light at the end of the tunnel but spending time at home with his two small children gave him time to develop ideas.
“As a chippie I would have been calling to houses at 7am to start work and you would be waiting for people to find the key to let you in. I could see it was dangerous — what happened if there was an emergency?”
Legislators had seen the same risk and had introduced new regulations on keyless egress, meaning final exit doors are fitted with a standard thumb turn lock to prevent anyone being locked in. Regulations had also been introduced regarding the height of locks on doors for wheelchair access.
But the combined effect was that many homes had back and front doors that had low-level locks, operated without a key. At home with his small children Darren saw a problem: “Little kids are like ninjas, they work out the lock and they’re out the door in a flash. It was security versus safety. We are more secure in that we can self rescue in case of emergency but how do you keep your kids in and safe?”
He had an idea for a lock that would do just that. For a year he mulled over it until his brother Wayne intervened: “If you’re prepared to see it sitting on a shelf in a year’s time with someone else’s name, fine. If not, just do it,” said his brother. In the dark days of 2009 Solan faced a very clear choice: “I could go on the dole, emigrate or take this idea and kick its ass up the road,” he said.
He went to his workshop and began building the prototype using everything from parts of his Hoover to children’s toys: “It was the Frankenstein model, but it worked, it did what I wanted it to do.”
Most modern doors have many bolts but just one cylinder mechanism that operates them. Solan’s invention, Safetwist, replaces the cylinder in the lock with one that children can’t open because it requires a certain amount of force that a child under seven does not have.
With a proven concept his next step was to get SLAS – stereolithographic plastic models. He applied for and got an innovation voucher and was hooked up with Athlone Institute of Technology who helped develop the model.
“That took about a year,” he said. “They were making it in plastic but it wasn’t a working model. But by the end I had refined it, reduced the number of parts, made what they call the Minimum Viable Product.”
He was using savings to fund the project and found a company in the UK to make a working model in metal while he started looking into patents, opting for a British one. It was a very costly process that took almost two and half years and had a “vertical learning curve,” he says. But getting the patent was a highlight on a bumpy road and he is now also at the end of the process for a European patent, covering 58 countries.
There were design refinements, independent testing, CE compliance and many more steps. About three years into the process and disillusioned with how much time and money it was costing Darren did have some doubts.
“You get to the stage where you’re tapped out but you’re still not where you need to be. I’ve been there on several occasions but I thought ‘if I give it up now it’s been a waste of time and money’. Audrey has been super. I really couldn’t have done it without her support, emotional and financial.”
Start to finish, from building the prototype to having a saleable product, eventually took six years. “Could you do it sooner? You probably could but I had never done it before. I’m a carpenter what do I know about making locks? When I was looking for funding I didn’t know how to write a business plan or how to forecast sales.”
But he managed it and Safetwist is up, running and trading and now employs four people.
The locks, manufactured in New Ross in County Wexford have been on the Late Late Show enterprise show and all of the dragons on Dragons’ Den were interested but wanted too big a piece of the business. Instead Darren got in his van and on his phone and began selling direct to the public.
“Anyone can change their lock cylinder, it’s very simple,” he said. The new regulations came just at the right time and Solan now supplies to several door component manufacturers like Profile Systems in Kildare and Weatherglaze and Rhino Doors in Gorey. The locks are now in a number of crèches and several new housing developments have Safetwist as standard. There is also interest from county councils with South Dublin Council already trialling Safetwist for their local authority houses.
“Did I know it would take as long as it did, or cost as much? No! Did I sometimes wonder if I was mad? Yes! But we’ve done it.” www.safetwist.ie
‘I could go on the dole, emigrate or take this idea and kick its ass up the road,’ says Darren Solan of trying to be an entrepreneur during the dark days of the crash. Photo: Mark Condren