A Detroit Entrepreneur Transforms Personal Tragedy Into Life-Saving Inventions

7/3/13Follow @XconomyDET

Orlando Robinson has always been a tinkerer. Growing up near Schoolcraft and Greenfield on the west side of Detroit, he was the kind of kid who dismantled electronics just to reassemble them for fun. He graduated from high school early, enrolled at Wayne State University at age 16, and landed in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps a year later.

His neighborhood, he says, was not a place that put a premium on scholastic achievement. “I was fortunate to have people in my life who lifted me up and kept me focused on being a positive person,” he says. “I did [the pre-college engineering program] DAPCEP for a year, but I’m not a degreed engineer. I’m an ideas guy.”

It was in Iraq where his endless stream of ideas led to his first bonafide invention. During sniper training, he realized that while perched in certain positions, it was nearly impossible for soldiers to drink from their canteens. So, while on the battlefield, he modified a canteen with a kind of straw so it didn’t need to be unholstered. Because it was a big hit with his unit, he submitted his invention to the Marine Corps through its Beneficial Suggestion Program because he wanted to help other soldiers stay hydrated during desert maneuvers.

After serving in Desert Storm, Robinson put those ideas to rest for a bit and came back to the United States. He fell in love with a social worker named Dionyell Walton. Driving in Detroit one night, he and Walton, whom he had recently become engaged to, were struck by another vehicle in a hit-and-run accident. Both Robinson and Walton were ejected from the car. Robinson survived the accident; Walton did not. Neither had been wearing seatbelts.

Robinson’s grief spurred him to action. He returned to his childhood hobby of tinkering and invented something called the Seatbelt Shifter Lock, a device that prevented drivers from shifting a car out of park unless the seatbelt was fastened. “I got a lot of interest in that,” Robinson recalls. Job offers came from Lear and Delphi, but Robinson turned them down to focus on starting his own auto supply business, designing circuit boards, hardware, and software for automakers.

Then the crash of 2008 happened and the auto industry tanked, which effectively killed his business. At the same time, foreclosures were wreaking havoc on Detroit’s real estate market. But Robinson saw an opportunity to invest while prices were at rock-bottom. He began buying foreclosed homes to fix up and flip, but he soon encountered a problem that has ravaged Detroit: scrappers, or, as he calls them, “urban miners.”

Scrappers break into vacant dwellings and rip out anything of value, like appliances, copper pipes, wiring, radiators, furnaces, and even aluminum siding. (Circle of life side note: This harvested metal sold by thieves to scrap yards in Detroit is often shipped to China, where it’s melted down and used to build some of the world’s next great industrial cities.)

Scrappers not only ruin the value of homes, they also cause collateral damage like flooding and fires if the power and water haven’t been shut off. Robinson’s solution was to invent something called the Door PAL, a fairly simple design involving 14-gauge steel plates and L-shaped brackets that make doors much harder to break down.

Robinson invited a local TV news crew over to one of his properties and challenged them to try to break in. “They brought crowbars and sledgehammers,” Robinson recalls. “First, we put padlocks on the door, they kicked it, and it flew open. Then we put our product on the door. They kicked the door ten times and it wouldn’t open up. Then they tried a crowbar, and our product bent it.”

Robinson says the Door PAL isn’t foolproof, but it makes a scrapper’s job vastly more difficult. After his demonstration was televised, Robinson says he got contracts from the city and a few banks to secure vacant homes across Detroit. Within a few months, he was up to 300 contractors servicing securing homes in three states before, as he explains, the money to fund the contracts began dwindling as the housing market picked back up.

Robinson filed a patent application for the Door PAL, which is pending, and was working on his various inventions and businesses when tragedy struck again two years ago—though this time it didn’t involve his family. A house in his neighborhood caught fire, and two children died as a result. His son, who was six at the time, said to him, “Dad, you’re an inventor. You should invent something so this doesn’t happen to any more kids.”

Robinson took his son’s words to heart and started investigating the cause of house fires. Forty-six percent of them, he discovered, are the result of unattended cooking. He talked to fire fighters, who verified that his research was correct. “My son and I started to figure, why can’t a smoke alarm shut off the stove? The solution came to me while I was sleeping.”

That solution is called Igniteless, and Robinson says he began putting all of his energy and time into getting the word out about his potentially life-saving product. If a stove begins to smoke, it trips a radio transmitter on the Igniteless device and sends a signal to a unit on the stove, which then shuts the stove off.

Robinson has established a company called D&D Innovations to sell Igniteless. The name of the company comes from his late fiancée, Dionyell, and Princess Diana. “When Princess Diana died, Dionyell was in front of the TV, crying,” he says, explaining that his fiancée felt a connection to Diana because of their mutual passion for social work. “It’s ironic that Dionyell then died in a car accident.”

Through D&D Innovations, Robinson is reaching out to insurance companies to try to persuade them to offer their customers policy discounts for using his product the same way they offer discounts for smoke alarms. He launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise the money to get Igniteless into the hands of consumers and in places like college dorms, assisted living facilities, and hotel suites, but he suspended the campaign last month after he got a call back from the TV show “Shark Tank.” (He says he’s waiting to see the outcome of his “Shark Tank” auditions before he relaunches the crowdfunding campaign.)

“We’re beyond the prototype stage—we’re ready to manufacture,” Robinson says. All he needs is a bit of funding and the FCC to issue him a license for Igniteless’s radio transmitters, and then he says he’s ready to begin manufacturing his product in Detroit. His research has determined that there are 250 million stoves in American homes. If he’s able to sell Igniteless at $150 each to just 5 percent of the market, he estimates it would generate $3 billion.

But, Robinson is quick to point out, for him  it’s not really about money. “I’m, like, living the dream,” he says. “To solve a problem with an idea in my head is like giving birth. That’s all a product is, is a thought. It’s a blank space, and you create matter.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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