A Detroit Entrepreneur Transforms Personal Tragedy Into Life-Saving Inventions

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 … Next Page »

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