Sacramento State student Joseph Simpson wanted to save lives when he invented a prescription pill bottle cap with a combination lock in 2009. He didn’t expect it to turn into a lucrative business that would change the direction of his life.
Simpson’s invention – Safer Lock – was motivated by his younger brother’s battle with addiction. Starting in his teens, Simpson’s brother had been pilfering prescription painkillers from his parents’ medicine cabinet, the family said.
“My entire family was really tested by this,” said Joseph Simpson, 26. “He was lucky. Some of his friends didn’t make it.”
Abuse of painkillers is one of the major causes of drug overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, a Partnership for a Drug Free America survey found that one in five teens said they used prescription medicine at least once in their lifetime to get high.
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The Safer Lock is intended for parents who want to ensure their children stay out of prescription medications that could prove tempting, Simpson said. The idea is “to stop (pill taking) before it starts and remove access.”
Although intended for families with young children and teens, the Safer Lock can thwart access by anyone, including houseguests and in-home workers.
Working with his high school buddy and college roommate Nathan Langley, Simpson came up with the idea for Safer Lock while his brother Stephen, now 24, was still in rehab.
“I told (Nathan), ‘Let’s think of a solution, so other families don’t have to go through the same family destruction,’ ” Simpson said. “Kids steal a few (pills) at a time and put the pill bottle back. They don’t want parents to know they do it.”
He sketched out the idea for the locking cap on a paper napkin. Then and he and Langley, 25 – both graduates of Lincoln High School in Lincoln and members of the Xi Phi Chi fraternity at California State University, Sacramento – set out to make their dream a marketable reality.
Simpson, who developed his business plan in a CSUS entrepreneurship class, said he first realized the product would be successful when an Internal Revenue Service agent advising him on how to set up a business by phone told him it was a good idea.
The partners have since added fellow Sacramento State classmate and fraternity brother Zachary Burkes, 26, to the business as director of government relations. Stephen Simpson, 24, is the director of operations. Deborah Simpson, a certified public accountant – and mother to the Simpson brothers – is the company’s CEO.
Safer Lock, which retails for $11.99, is sold online and available in Ralph’s and Save Mart grocery stores, as well as independent pharmacies across the country.
The company reports it sold just under 10,000 units in 2014, the first year that Safer Lock was available in stores. Until then, it was sold only online. The caps and bottles are manufactured in the Bay Area, but all assembly takes place in the company’s Natomas warehouse. The company now has the capacity to turn out 40,000 units a month, Langley said.
The executives are working hard to finalize other contracts. They returned Thursday from a weeklong trip to New York, where they pitched their product at sales meetings with potential clients.
The recent sales growth prompted several changes for the company last year, including renaming their product Safer Lock at the behest of investors. (It was originally named The Locking Cap.) They also renamed the company Gatekeeper Innovation Inc., moved to offices in a North Natomas industrial park and hired a New York-based president.
The fledgling business isn’t profitable yet, said Simpson, but is close to breaking even.
“It is continuing to grow,” Joseph Simpson said. “I’m really blessed and really fortunate to have people behind me to help me.”
The help includes funding from two groups of angel investors – Sacramento Angels Investors and Sierra Angels – as well as individuals, including family members. Angel investors evaluate and invest money in startups. In return, they typically receive a stake in the company.
Peter Harbage, owner of Harbage Consulting in Sacramento, has invested $100,000 in Safer Lock and its goal of helping prevent prescription pill addiction.
“It’s a great example of social entrepreneurship,” Harbage said of Safer Lock and its young owners. “They have been able to develop a product that will make an important social difference… and have it be successful in the marketplace. It’s great to be a part of it.”
The company also sells Safer Lock at a reduced price to nonprofits such as Partners in Prevention and the Folsom Cordova Community Partnership, which distribute the Safer Lock at community events and at health centers, Langley said.
The Safer Lock recently earned accolades in the Sacramento tech community. In November, Joseph Simpson was among four local entrepreneurs to be honored by TechCon, the annual technology forum sponsored by the Sacramento Regional Technology Alliance. He received the Claire Pomeroy Award for innovation in medical technology.
The young executives say they are constantly thinking about new innovations for their product line. Using a 3-D printer, Joseph Simpson tinkers on new prototypes, working out of a small closet at the Natomas warehouse.
The company already has improved its original product, which had only three “digit wheels” and 1,000 possible number combinations. Safer Lock now sells as a four-digit cap with 10,000 possible combinations, as well as an easier-to-use reset button to change the combination. A patent is expected to be granted this month. The company also has a preliminary patent on a seven-day pill organizer with a combination lock.
Despite the improvements, the locking cap isn’t 100-percent foolproof, Simpson said. It can be opened using “a great deal of force,” but not without leaving signs of forced entry.
He said parents sometimes call the company to thank them for creating the product. Then there are the calls that start as a complaint about a broken cap but end with a sad realization. “I tell them it’s ultrasonically welded and it doesn’t (turn) unless there is force,” Simpson said. “They just say ‘Thank you’ and hang up,” realizing that their child or someone in the household broke into the container.
The product could get a big boost if states pass legislation requiring locks on certain prescription medications, such as Illinois is considering.
“Illinois lawmakers are looking at making this available for patients who pick up a prescription for specific drugs that fall within the Schedule II classification, such as hydrocodone,” said Burkes, who testified before legislators in December.
They hope to interest lawmakers in California and other states in carrying similar legislation.
Despite Safer Lock’s success, Joseph Simpson continues to take two classes a night and still intends to complete his CSUS business marketing degree. “I want to get my degree for the personal accomplishment,” he said. “When I had this idea, I was two-thirds of the way done with school.”
On a recent afternoon, the Simpson brothers and Langley worked side-by-side in the Gatekeeper Innovation warehouse. Above them hangs a banner featuring a giant Safer Lock bottle and a marketing slogan: “You Deserve Peace of Mind.”
The men say they aren’t big on corporate titles. Joseph Simpson develops new products. Nathan Langley takes finished prototypes to potential buyers. Stephen Simpson assembles the caps and prepares the finished product for shipment. Burkes handles public and government communications.
“We do separate things and help each other,” Stephen said. “We hold each other accountable.”
Stephen, who said he has been drug-free for three years, says he’s happy that his family’s experience can help others. “It does make me feel good that some good came out of it. This is a step forward, to help others.”
Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.
Safer Lock: At a Glance
What it is: A safety cap with a bottle, designed for prescription medications. Designed by two Sacramento State students, the cap has a four-digit combination code designed to prevent unwanted access to medications.
How it works: You can either screw the cap onto most existing prescription bottles, or empty your prescription pills into the Safer Lock bottle. You set a four-digit combination code, which can be changed at any time.
Where sold: Retailing for $11.99 each, they’re available at certain grocery stores, pharmacies and online at saferlockrx.com.
Source: Safer Lock