Success is sticking to creativity

 

A Kilkenny woman’s gum product is nominated today as one of the inventions of the year, writes KEVIN CASEY

IT’S A brand of goo. Sounds like glue. Spelled S-u-g-r-u. Inspired by the Irish word súgradh, meaning play. But what does Sugru do?

“It’s basically a bit like plasticine or modelling clay,” explains Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh (31), the inventor. “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.”

It 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.

“It started with the idea, ‘What if a material existed so that everything in the world could be more flexible’,” explains Ní Dhulchaointigh. A graduate of National College of Art and Design in 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 wanted 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 is 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 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.”

Word about Sugru spread 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 e-tail channel on her website (www.sugru.com) displays the slogan “Hack things better”. 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 patching up boots in Wellington, customising lamps from Illinois and adding colour to bikes from Edinburgh.

People protect their gear with it, such as mobile phones and make the world a little bit safer and softer if there is a baby around.

It’s not just for sticking your iPod back together after you boogie too hard though. “Only about 25 per cent of the things we see people do are repairs,” claims Ní Dhulchaointigh. “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 its recent 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 says. 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 browsing in 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.”

Sugru also retails through small craft stores, science museums, bike shops and hardware stores. The upshot is, they’re selling 5,000 packs a month.

The company had two employees last Christmas, with six this year but 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 iteractive 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 Forbesmagazine and the British newspapers. Even Timemagazine is getting in on the act. Today Sugru is being nominated as one of the 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. So, does Sugru have a special PR machine next to the magic gum mixer? Ní Dhulchaointigh laughs and denies any such machine exists. “It’s timing,” she believes. “There’s a mood. 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.”

And Sugru is growing. “We believe it has the potential to be as big as Blu Tack.”

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.

Best inventions list from 'Time' magazine

Time magazine publishes an annual list of Best Inventions. Past luminaries include Nasa for their Ares rocket(2009), Apple for the iPhone(2007), YouTubefor their video platform (2006) and Apple again for the iTunesmusic 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 Bow-lingualdog translation device (2002) for interpreting canine speech. Unfortunately, it was never released outside of Japan.


  • Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh will be telling the story of Sugru (www.sugru.com) at the Paccar Theatre in Dublin’s Science Gallery today at 1pm as part of Science Week. Admission is free.
  • See: www.sciencegallery.com