American’s got engineering/dancing talent
About: The multi-award winning mastic, Sugru, has taken the world by storm since launching in 2010. In an exclusive interview I sourced and wrote in The Irish Times, Sugru’s Irish inventor Jane ní Dhulchaointigh, reveals that her super-stuff has been selected alongside the iPad as one of Time Magazine’s Inventions of the Year, 2010.
Title: The Goo of Small Things
It’s a brand of goo. Sounds like “glue”. Or “you” too. Spelled “S-u-g-r-u”. Inspired by the Irish word “súgradh”, meaning “play”. What does Sugru do?
”It‘s basically a bit like Plasticine or modelling clay”, explains Jane ní Dhulchaointigh (31), the inventor of Sugru. “When you take it out of the packet, you have 30 minutes to shape it into anything you want. Then, you leave it overnight and it will set into durable silicone rubber.”
Doesn’t sound that interesting. Until you realise that Sugru moulds to most of the other materials in your home. Working with metal, glass, ceramic and hard plastic, Sugru is extremely versatile stuff.
Everything is Unfinished
“It started with the idea, ‘What if a material existed so that everything in the world could be more flexible’” explains Jane. A graduate of NCAD, Dublin, she had the idea for Sugru while studying for her Masters at the Royal College of Design in London. She wondered, what would happen if people saw everything in their house as unfinished and they were the ones to finish it off?
From the outset she had in mind to design a user-friendly and accessible product. That’s why it has certain properties like being dishwasher-proof, it looks good, is durable and is safe to use.
It’s design-led all the way but Sugru is backed up by some hard-core science and technology. “To design a new material from scratch does not happen overnight,” says the Kilkenny native with much understatement. She collaborated with a team of experienced materials experts through countless experiments over five years of research and development before they were ready for market.
Is the market ready for them? “I realised very early that in order for people to think as designers, as I hoped they would, they would need to be inspired.” explains Jane. “It was not about the material so much as about how people perceived it.”
Power of Communities
Word about Sugru spreads virally through internet communities. “Something that encourages people to share their ideas becomes very powerful,” she says. “Because we use the internet more and more, we expect everything online to be customisable. When it comes to our physical world, we just don’t have that flexibility.”
“The people who know their thing, love what they do, whether musicians, designers or whatever, have a massive opportunity ahead.”
The e-tail channel on www.sugru.com displays the slogan “Hack things better” in the banner. In this context, the word “hack” connotes innovation and improvisation. Shoppers can browse a gallery of Sugru tricks submitted by users from all over the world such as boots from Wellington, lamps from Illinois and bikes from Edinburgh. People protect their gear with it, pad the handles on their wares and make the world a little bit safer around baby.
It’s not just for sticking your iPod back together after you boogie too hard. “Only about 25% of the things we see people do are repairs,” claims Jane. “Most people use it for improvements and modifications.” The only limiting factor is human inventiveness. “It sounds absurd,” she says, “But there are hundreds and thousands of things that people do. Despite it’s online fame, the idea for Sugru (2003) predates social media platforms Facebook (2004), Youtube (2005) and Twitter (2006).
“When we started off, it wouldn’t have been possible to build an online community for Sugru like we have now.” she admits. But now all geographic barriers have been wiped away. “I can get a message (in London) from somebody sitting at the kitchen table in Alaska working on their headphones and we have a bit of banter about favourite songs.” Social media makes the shopping experience more like an old shoe shop or a record store. But one that reaches out to anywhere. “People don’t normally expect to be able to speak to the managing director of a company but it’s all so easy that we can operate like that. I absolutely love that. “
Organic Growth Strategy
Sugru also retails through small craft stores, science museums, bike shops and hardware stores. The upshot is, monthly sales of 5000 packets per month. There are no plans to super-size the business by going with a major retailer.
“It’s a very organic growth strategy for a business but it also is quite solid because through those feedback loops you’re making iterative improvements all the time to your product, customer service and distribution system. You’re learning all the time and it’s all based on evidence.”
Sugru has enjoyed extensive coverage in Forbes magazine, the Daily Mail, the London Independent and now, even Time magazine is getting in on the act. Today Sugru is being nominated as one of Time magazine’s Top 50 Best Inventions of 2010, rubbing shoulders with the rocket scientists of Nasa and the gadget gurus at Apple.
If you could wrap publicity like that in foil packets you could sell it for a fortune. Does Sugru have a special PR machine sat next to the magic gum mixer?
Waste Less, Conserve More
Ní Dhulchaointigh laughs and denies any such machine exists. “It’s timing” she believes. “There’s a mood. But it’s not just the recession. It’s a post-consumerist mood, which is complicated.” In some respects, it’s not because people can’t afford new things, it’s because, due to environmental concerns it suits them to waste less and conserve more.
For aspiring entrepreneurs, she sees e-tail as the way to go. If you can forge a connection with people, you can trade with them from anywhere. ”Creativity is free,” she points out. “The people who know their thing, love what they do, whether musicians, designers or whatever, have a massive opportunity ahead.”
Sugru is growing. “We believe it has the potential to be as big as Blu-tack.” It’s a durable idea and she’s made it stick. As a reference point for the future, it’s worth remembering that another great brand based on the native word for “play” is Denmark’s Lego.
Time magazine publishes an annual list of Best Inventions. Past luminaries include Nasa for their Ares rocket (2009), Apple for the iPhone (2007), YouTube for their video platform (2006) and iTunes music store (2003).Other inventions which have made it to the list and crossed into the public imagination include the Large Hadron Collider, the invisibility cloak, the Mars rovers, camera phones and the world’s fastest computer. Some inventions which are still awaiting the big time include the Airgo (2001), an air-powered Pogo stick and the Bowlingual dog translation device (2002) for interpreting canine speech. Unfortunately, the Bowlingual was never released outside of Japan. See www.time.com