ISSUE 05 | INVENTOR

A hole in one

Where better to hone your skills as an inventor than an East African mechanics workshop? We uncover the origins of a break-through saw that makes square holes.

By Clare Dowdy | Photography by Trent McMinn

Quadsaw

Michael Sebhatu  developed his engineering expertise as a teenager in his brother’s workshop in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. For five years, he modified and made new parts for everything from cars to food processors.

“In developing countries, you can’t get hold of spare parts,” he explains. “So when cars broke down or engines failed, people brought them to us and we remodelled the broken element or made it anew. That’s how the whole country’s run, for anything that’s mechanical. It’s a thriving industry.” 

The fruits of that early experience have resulted in an innovation that could transform a small corner of the building trade. It’s an ingenious attachment that allows square holes for plug and light sockets to be drilled through plasterboard in one go, in just six seconds. 

The Quadsaw works like this: four serrated blades are slotted into four grooves in its flat surface (for a single or double socket configuration). The pilot drill in the middle of the attachment locates the centre point on the wall. And here’s the clever bit: the body of the Quadsaw houses Sebhatu’s patented brainwave: a motion converter that changes the drill’s circular movements into a linear sawing motion in four different planes. 

Sebhatu’s brainwave: a motion converter that changes the drill’s circular movements into a linear sawing motion

Sebhatu’s business partner and backer Ean Brown calls it “a precision piece of engineering put into a toughened shell”. 

The advantages of the Quadsaw over a conventional pad saw are many, says Brown. “Because of the pilot drill and built-in spirit level, it’s quicker than marking up by drawing a line on the wall around the electrical box. Plus there’s no making good and snagging as it cuts a clean hole.” And that all produces cost savings on a building site. 

Quadsaw, which went on sale last September, is not just the product of Sebhatu’s five years in that workshop. An Eritrean by birth, brought up in a family of rural farmers, he became a refugee when Ethiopia declared war on his homeland and he was expected to fight in the Ethiopian army. 

In 1990, he arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker with only a few words of English. Just two weeks later, he was enrolled in education and eventually gained a degree in Mechanical Engineering, followed by a Masters in Product Design. 

“After doing all that studying there was a moment when I struggled to find a job, and I was getting to a point that felt like make or break,” says Sebhatu, who is tall, slim and softly-spoken.

Despite all his qualifications, he was working as a kitchen fitter in 2009 when he came up with the idea for the Quadsaw. 

The Quadsaw in action

“For some weeks, it played in my head. I started going to DIY shops and searching on the internet (for existing square saw products).” That led on to searches at the Patent Office. “I saw a few patents from the 1970s, but I guess they couldn’t come up with a working idea, they couldn’t crack it. Then I start sketching different ideas, different methods and mechanisms, and made a working concept. I had always wanted to develop my own ideas. It was all about finding the right concept. Luckily, Quadsaw was just that”. 

He and Brown – South African by birth - were introduced to each other by a mutual acquaintance in 2012. The timing, too, was right for Brown. “As a lawyer, I’ve done a lot of deals for a lot of different people. I’d got to the point where I needed to decide whether or not I was going to do something for myself.” 

At that time, Brown was setting up Genius IP, a company to commercialise breakthrough patents. Sebhatu’s Quadsaw became his first product. 

It’s taken five years of development and half-a-dozen iterations to bring the Quadsaw to the market.

‘It has not been an easy journey… but now it feels like it’s been worth it’ 

It’s assembled in the former milking parlour of a farm outside Potters Bar, complete with horses peering over their stable doors. Inside are rows of small, hand-operated arbor presses, which have been modified using Genius IP’s own assembly tools. 

Manufacture is UK-based because “We have a mantra: ‘what gets sold stays sold’, and we’re keen on ensuring the brand integrity is maintained,” says Brown. “They’re not made abroad because one return is one too many, and having the manufacturing here gives us control over quality.” It takes about an hour to assemble the 50 components, all of which are British-made, except those sprung steel blades, which come from Germany. 

Development continues, with new blades that saw through breeze blocks and wood launching this year. Following that “some new tools are extremely close, we plan on being more than just Quadsaw,” says Brown. 

While Quadsaw seems like a piece of kit that the building industry has been crying out for, it’s been an uphill struggle for its inventor. “It has not been an easy journey,” says Sebhatu, “But now it feels like it’s been worth it. I’m a refugee, and now I feel like I’m contributing something, and giving back to society here.” 

Take-out: Even a brilliant idea will only get to market with the right support

Michael Sebhatu

Michael Sebhatu...

...on developing his engineering expertise in Ethiopia:
“In developing countries, you can’t get hold of spare parts. So when cars broke down or engines failed, people brought them to us and we remodelled the broken element or made it anew. That’s how the whole country’s run, for anything that’s mechanical.”

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