A novel glue rises from clever repairs to social media hit

Sugru is being heralded as the product you never knew you needed – until you did

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh with her invention Sugru, a mouldable glue. Photograph: Andrew Testa/the New York Times

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh with her invention Sugru, a mouldable glue. Photograph: Andrew Testa/the New York Times

 

It can fix a broken statue, repair a frayed iPhone cable, add a rubbery grip to a kitchen knife, make those Bose earbuds fit better, repair a leaky boat – and even create a prosthetic leg for a chicken. So, what is this product?

It is Sugru and it is being heralded as the product you never knew you needed – until you did.

Sugru is a mouldable glue. It looks like Play-Doh, can be shaped around any object, sticks to almost any material, is waterproof, heat-resistant and dries to a silicone rubbery finish in 24 hours. Its ability to bond to virtually any surface – wood, glass, metals and ceramics among others – and its mouldable nature make it unusual in the world of adhesives, sealants and glues.

“I wanted to design something that was so easy and so fun to use that more people would consider fixing things again,” says Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, the Irish entrepreneur behind Sugru. Even the name is taken from the Irish word “sugradh”, meaning “play”.

Bridget Grunst, a Target stores buyer, admits she was sceptical before meeting Sugru’s team in the autumn of 2014. After all, Target already carried more than 40 glue products in its home improvement section alone.

“Did I roll my eyes? Yes,” she says, laughing. “I mean, glue is not the most innovative category out there.”

All of that changed though when Grunst met the Sugru team and watched in amazement at the myriad ways, both practical and creative, that the glue could be used. The iPhone charger repair was the clincher.

“I have frayed cords at home and it’s a unique way to fix it versus having to go buy another charger for $50,” Grunst says. Sugru’s rubbery flexible finish allowed it to repair charger cords, which super glues, with their rock-hard finishes, cannot do, she adds.

Grunst also liked Sugru’s mouldable nature, with its ability to fill gaps, replace broken appliance parts or rebuild a broken handle on a kitchen tap. Other glues, which are often liquids and sprays, cannot, she says.

That Ní Dhulchaointigh would develop a product such as Sugru would not have been easy to predict. Born in Kilkenny in 1979, she grew up on a farm where her father, John, was a farmer, and her mother, Eilis, was a teacher.

As a youngster, she had an artistic bent, making paintings and sculptures. She received a degree in fine art from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in 2001 and a master’s degree in product design from the Royal College of Art in London in 2004.

She first started experimenting at college with clay, silicone sealants and other sculpting materials. She brought them home and soon started using them around the house – wrapping the putty around knife handles to get a better grip, using it to fix a leaky kitchen sink stopper, adding it as rubber “feet” to the bottom of a laptop and repairing a mug handle. Her boyfriend, James Carrigan, who is now her husband, noticed her clever repairs and suggested she try to market it.

When she showcased the prototype at a student product design exhibition in 2004, the response was overwhelming, she says. “The top two questions were: ‘How much is it?’ and ‘Where can I get it?’ ” she says. She knew she had a potential hit.

With a $50,000 grant from Nesta, a British research firm, in 2005, and a $500,000 equity investment from Lacomp, a venture fund, in 2006, she dived in.

She brought in a business partner, Roger Ashby, and hired two former Dow Corning scientists as consultants to help build the prototype. It took five years, 5,000 experiments and 8,000 lab hours to perfect and patent the formula.

At this point, the recession had hit and financing was almost non-existent to market the product to retailers. “We pitched to almost 100 investors” without luck, she says. A private investor finally provided $150,000, far short of what was needed.

So, in 2009, she took the social media route, sending samples to dozens of technology bloggers, in the belief that if they saw its potential role in repairing information technology equipment, they would promote it. The strategy worked. “It went viral,” she says.

When the company introduced its website in December 2009, all 1,000 packages, which took two months to make by hand, sold out within six hours. An additional 2,000 were sold on back order. “It was incredible; it changed everything.”

Suddenly, “investors were reading about us all over the internet and they started coming to us asking how they could help”. Time magazine listed Sugru, alongside the iPad, as one of the top 50 inventions of 2010.

Sales topped $5.5 million in 2015, up from $3.4 million in 2014 and $250,000 in its first year in 2010. They are expected to exceed $10 million this year and $60 million by 2020.

It is now sold online to more than 160 countries and through 19 brick-and-mortar retailers in 6,050 stores in four countries. In the United States, 10 retailers carry the product in 4,500 stores.

Ní Dhulchaointigh says Sugru can withstand temperatures as high as 356 degrees and as low as minus 58 degrees, making it durable indoors and out. It will not melt, freeze, soften or harden. It can be thrown into a washing machine or dishwasher, even soaked in seawater.

If a user makes a mistake, a sharp knife can be used to cut through Sugru’s rubbery surface, removing it without damaging the surface of the repaired item. With other two-part hard- core glues, “once you put them on something, you can’t go back. They’re on there forever.”

Sugru has raised about $12 million from investors and another round is expected this year. Ní Dhulchaointigh’s goal is to make Sugru a staple in everyone’s kitchen drawer and to expand into more countries and into other fields, such as medical devices, the motor industry and toys.

Still, Sugru has its limitations: its shelf life is 13 months and, once a packet is opened, it must be used within 24 hours. It cannot compete with products that promote their sticking power, where ads show a man dangling in a helmet glued to a steel beam. Sugru holds up to about 4lb.

It is Sugru’s “fix-it” abilities that make it unique, says Lisa Smith, a buyer for the Container Store, which has stocked Sugru since late 2013. Sugru sells for $12 for a package of three packets. “It’s a pretty expensive product versus a little thing of super glue for $4,” Grunst says, while Smith says the product needs “a lot of explanation”.

Sugru relies on social media for that. It has attracted avid fans, who have posted thousands of videos on YouTube and the company’s website, where they try to one-up one another on who can find the most innovative use for the glue. The company offers discounts and coupons on Sugru to the best entrants.

A motorcyclist used Sugru to mount a camera to his helmet and then went on a ride down the motorway filming his journey. Lauren Richardson, an aerobatic pilot in Britain, used Sugru to strap a camera to the outside of her aircraft’s wing, so the camera could capture her flips and turns.

Then there’s the chicken. When a fox attacked a pet hen at a family’s home in Cork, the hen lost a leg. So, the owner, a retired engineer, built a fibreglass prosthetic leg and used Sugru to add chicken feet to the prosthetic. The chicken now walks on two feet. – © 2016 New York Times News Service

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