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Costly spill gave birth to topple-proof tray

A former waitress from Edinburgh is set to join the list of great Scottish inventors, writes Bob Flynn

The recent history of Great Scottish Inventions has never quite lived up to the glory days of James Watt or Alexander Graham Bell. But that may be about to change with an invention the world has long waited for: the topple-proof serving tray.

Dreamt up by a former waitress from Edinburgh, the ingenious idea is poised to become one of the success stories of the new year. Alison Grieve, a 34-year-old mother of twins and former events manager, thought up the Safetray after seeing a tray laden with full champagne glasses crash to the floor during a lavish function she was managing at an Edinburgh hotel.

"It was a big corporate event I'd organised for a delegation of international lawyers, but it started with this spectacular accident," she said. "Obviously it was very costly, but also extremely dangerous for the waiters and embarrassing for the clients. That got me thinking.

Ms Grieve began to work out how a tray could right itself at the moment of impending tilt and three months later she had her "eureka moment".

She said: "I didn't shout 'eureka' but I did leap out of my chair. I'd had ideas for inventions since I was a child, but this was like a lightbulb going off. I drew a rough sketch of a clip that engages with your fingers underneath the tray so you could hold it level no matter what it's carrying. It's based on first principle physics, load dispersal and counter movement."

The result is a company with a potential turnover of millions. Conceived, designed and manufactured in Scotland, the Safetray went into mass production at the McLaren Plastics factory in Loanhead this month for export to America, supplying the prestigious Four Seasons hotel group and two of the country's largest catering companies, Sodexo and Compass.

Initial orders run into tens of thousands and from January Ms Grieve's trays will be used in hotels, bars and restaurants from Alaska to San Fransisco. She recently made distribution deals with two UK catering contractors, and talks are underway to supply the Safetray to Park Hyatt hotels in Australia and the United Arab Emirates.

With global sales expected to exeed 200k units in the first year and forecast to quadruple over three years, Safetray Products Ltd is currently valued at £1 million.

Ms Grieve's good-humoured disposition belies a sharp business acumen and a creative mind. The Safetray, which is her first patented invention, looks like any other black waiting tray but the crucial difference is a pyramid-shaped retractable cantilever finger clip underneath that acts as an extension to the holder's palm, ensuring stability even in inexperienced hands. "When I first showed it to people, the reaction was, 'why has nobody thought of this before?'" said Ms Grieve. "It looks simple but it was very complicated to design and build."

Despite having no background in design, having studied the history of film and photography at university, she had harboured ideas for inventions from childhood, something that runs in her family. Her grandfather, Professor Sir Robert Grieve, was a visionary engineer and town planner who devised a strategy to move people quickly to air raid shelters during the Clydebank Blitz. Credited with saving many lives during the war, he later spearheaded the Clyde Valley Regional Plan and became the first chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

"Bob was a great influence," said Ms Grieve. "When I was a child I used to spend evenings at his knee listening to him talk as he puffed on his pipe. He loved walking and we used to go for long family walks in the hills. He wasn't interested in wealth, but public service and progress.

"He came from an era when Scotland was an incredible nation of inventors, engineers and scientists. Now we've been left high and dry by the banking crisis I was thinking, 'where are the people who are making things? Where have they gone?'"

Ms Grieve formed a partnership with Fearsomengine, a product design consultancy in Glasgow, and set up Safetray Products Ltd in January. With support from Scottish Enterprise and Business Gateway, she filed the patent for the tray in March and exhibited it at trade shows in Las Vegas and Chicago. It was an immediate hit.

"The American attitude towards innovation is so refreshing," Ms Grieve said. "In Scotland we're still not sure about success, people can be begrudging and negative. In America they said: 'Wow, it makes life easier, it saves money, how many can we buy?' In Scotland I've heard people say 'aye, but it's cheating'."

Patrick Robineau, director of food & beverage at the Four Seasons, described the Safetray as "an awesome product" on his website.

"We had orders in from the biggest names in the hotel and hospitality industry," said Ms Grieve. "It was then I thought, my baby's grown up."

Keeping your spirits up

1. If the surface of a tray becomes unbalanced, a downward force is created and the tray topples.

2. The Safetray's clip acts like a lever, enabling users to react against any downward force by pressing their knuckles against the clip, creating an opposing force.

3. The clip slides back and retracts into the base to be stacked like any other tray after use.

Posted on December 24, 2011 .