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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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