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MTLS: Barry Geer

Engineer-cum-entrepreneur invents a traffic light system that’s set to revolutionise a global industry.

Juliet Pitman

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Barry Geer of MTLS

Some of the best business ideas involvelooking at something that already exists and thinking “I can do that better”.Just ask Barry Geer, founder of MTLS (Modular Traffic Light Systems). “I was driving past an accident where acar had hit a traffic light and my partner said to me, ‘If someone could inventa safe traffic light system they’d make millions,’” he says. At 2am the next morning, the light cameon. “I woke up with a vision of how to do it and I scribbled some stuff down,”Geer, an engineer by training, remembers. The next day he set off for hisbrother’s house, borrowed some of his nephew’s Lego blocks and started puttingtogether the first “prototype” of his idea.

Meetingglobal safety needs

Some 30% of accidents involve acollision with a traffic light or street pole and there is a strong move inEurope and the UKto mandate the use of what’s known as “passive poles”, which absorb the energyduring an impact. MTLS meets this need perfectly. Geerexplains: “A traditional traffic light consists of a steel pole with a separatesignal head. But ours is made of separate plasticinjection-moulded components that are held together with a lightweight chainassembly that is tensioned at the top and runs the length of the pole. Ratherlike a giant Lego set,” he says, harkening back to the product’s beginnings. Geer adds, “Every impact is differentbut these units break up and the entire system falls apart on impact, eitherfalling over or flying over the back of

the vehicle.

”Because they are plastic, they don’tharm the driver.”Cheaper cost, faster installation. But while it’s a key unique sellingproposition, the system has more to offer than safety alone. “It’s cheaper andfaster to install, uses less manpower, and is easier to replace,” says Geer.The foundation unit is pre-cast and can be inserted directly into a hole, withthe other components quick to assemble. There’s no waiting for concrete to dry.“From a cost point of view, the entiresystem is probably slightly more expensive than the current traffic lightsbeing used, but in an accident our foundation is not disturbed so that’s aonce-off cost. Also, a standard signal head costs a municipality around R2 500to replace, whereas ours is between R450 and R500,” he adds.

Thelong road to development

But while the product is undoubtedlyinnovative, marketable and unique, getting it to this point has not been easy.The design took three years of prototyping. “Because South Africa has no impact testingfacility, we tested the product ourselves. “A friend of mine volunteered to crasha car into the traffic light – fortunately there was only R2 000 worth ofdamage to the car and he was absolutely fine. It was an incredibly stupid thingto do but it proved we were on the right track,” Geer says. But the biggest challenges all camedown to funding. “This sort of product sucks up cash faster thananything,” he notes. Along the way he’s bartered agreements, promisingproduction contracts to the supplier who did some of the engineering work, forexample. Finally, in 2004 he met up with partner Jayson Gouws, who injected alarge capital sum into the company. Since then, other large companies haveshown interest in investing and MTLS is currently negotiating with them.

Gettingto market

In November 2007, the Johannesburg RoadAgency partnered with the company to set up a pilot test site in Sandton andhas since approved the product for roll-out. There are test sites in Dubai and Germanyand enormous opportunities exist in the UK and European markets. “We’rejust in the process of getting certification for a new European and UK safetystandard,” Geer indicates. In 2008, MTLS won the SABS Design Awardfor Excellence and has recently been approached by one of the world’s largestdesign and technology institutes to showcase the product as the central focusof an upcoming USexhibition. As Geer concludes: “We’re at a reallycritical stage now. This is the tipping point – we have people who want theproduct so we just need the last final push to get certification and gear upfor manufacture.”

  • Company:MTLS
  • Players: BarryGeer and Jayson Gouws
  • Est2004
  • Contact:mtls@mweb.co.za or +27 82 434 1948

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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