Hackney people: Sugru guru
From a small idea to an international success: we talk to the Hackney-based inventor of Sugru
"IT actually happened by accident,” says Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, talking about her sticky invention, Sugru.
Designed to attach to as many materials as possible – aluminium, wood, glass and plastic – Sugru is the world’s first mouldable glue. Take it out of its packet and it can be shaped for 30 minutes before hardening into a tough, waterproof, rubber-like substance.
In 2010, Time magazine named it one of the 50 best inventions of the year, at number 22. The iPad, meanwhile, was ranked at 34. But back in 2003, Jane was feeling less than confident about the future.
She says: “I’d arrived in London to study product design, full of ambition and enthusiasm. Then I realised I wasn’t that good at it.”
Hiding in a workshop at the Royal College of Art, in Kensington, she began playing with materials ‘with no sense at all of what I was aiming for’, she says. One day, she mixed some silicone sealant with dust from an extraction fan and ‘when I came back from lunch, I threw it on the floor and it bounced. It seemed so odd, I’d made something that looked like wood, but bounced. I was fascinated’.
She started to use it in her own home, to fix the handle of a broken mug, then to enlarge the plug in her kitchen sink. She still couldn’t think, however, of how to turn it into a product with a single use.
Her boyfriend, James, advised her to let other people decide what to do with it instead. A decade later, Sugru has made five million sales in over 160 countries worldwide and expanded into 10 colours. Oh, and Jane married James.
“The idea was the easy bit,” she says. Adding: “Developing it took me far outside my comfort zone. I had to learn business skills, apply for patents, get investors, work with scientists and dig into my overdraft when the recession hit.”
For six years she plugged away, developing the product. What kept her going was a wall of pictures in her office of people who believed in her product.
Jane explains: “Some of them would look at me as if I was crazy, but other times I would see people’s eyes light up. I kept a list of these people and when we finally had samples to post to them, they would try it out and send me photos of the fixes they had made.”
These inspiring photos numbered around 150 until 2009, when the company finally raised the £100,000 it needed to launch the product officially. Jane converted her Hackney lab into a little factory. She persuaded friends and family to work day and night, and shed blood, sweat and tears to get everything ready. Then she waited to see what response it got.
They didn’t have to wait long. An online video of Sugru went viral, the first 1,000 packets sold out in six hours, and the number of photographs on Jane’s wall exploded.
She says: “We started receiving hundreds of stories from Sugru users all over the world. People are so clever and inventive at fixing things, it’s just that they’re often encouraged to think that they can’t.
“In the old days, you could get a new chair leg, or replace a screw if something you owned broke. Now, many things are made of moulded plastic and it’s much harder. That’s what Sugru is perfect for.”
Jane’s favourite fixes are the commonplace ones. The ones where ‘parents keep a pair of scuffed school shoes going for a bit longer, or someone fixes the small broken part of the fridge that would otherwise have left the whole thing useless’.
Sometimes, she says, a little fix can make an enormous difference: “People send us photos showing how Sugru has helped them deal with disability, like making the knobs on a microwave tactile, so that a visually impaired person can use it.”
A woman who was born without fingers also used the product to adapt her canoe paddle and travel 715km down the Yukon River in North America.
The Hackney factory now sends products out to large UK retailers, as well as to 5,000 stores across the US. Jane is still wedded to the borough though.
She says: “We employ about 50 people here, from the factory to the sales and marketing teams. It’s such an amazing, creative community to be part of, you feel like people are really rooting for you.”