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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 11 August, 2020
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How one inventor turned an idea for 'space-age Play-Doh' into a million-euro company

Sugru’s Jane ní Dhulchaointigh tells us how she went from student to internationally-recognised founder.

Sugru inventor Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh
Sugru inventor Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh
Image: Dan Dennison

IT WAS WHILE studying product design in London that Jane ní Dhulchaointigh realised that making new things for consumers who already had more than enough wasn’t for her.

Rather than conjuring up yet another lamp, table or chair, the Kilkenny-raised inventor, who first studied sculpture in Dublin before leaving for the UK, wanted to create something that made an impact on people’s everyday lives.

“Part of my exploring product design led me to figure out that a lot of product design wasn’t needed, because we’ve got a lot of stuff already,” she told TheJournal.ie.

“I thought, what if you could find a way to inspire more people to solve problems for themselves?

That is what we’ve been like as human beings – we have had to figure out how to fix things and make things forever, but in the last couple of generations we have lost those skills as we have become more of a consumerist society.”

Ní Dhulchaointigh’s idea was for a sort of “space-age Play-Doh” – something as easy to work with as a child’s toy but with the power to fix almost anything.

More than a decade later, the firm she founded with that concept, Sugru, has reached over a million customers across the world.

RED-blob

Serious play

Earlier this week we reported the company had raised £3.55 million (€5 million) in equity crowdfunding through Crowdcube in a deal that values it at more than £27 million (€38 million).

With a name inspired by the Irish for “play”, Sugru has also been recognised as one of Time magazine’s top-50 inventions in 2010, its first year on the market.

Some impressive feats from a designer who, as Ní Dhulchaointigh readily admits, began as “just a student” with no science qualifications.

To turn her initial concept into a marketable commodity she teamed up with UK entrepreneur Roger Ashby, who brought with him a background in engineering and technology, and together they recruited two recently-retired experts from the silicone industry.

The next five years before Sugru went on sale were spent developing a viable product and bringing it to market.

timeline-c055134d06db909fbb19d850ac57b59c A timeline of Sugru's development

Click here for a larger version

While the initial plan was to partner with a big company for the manufacturing or to take on some marketing responsibilities, in the end Ní Dhulchaointigh and her team elected to take advantage of the new-found opportunities in e-commerce and do it themselves.

Back in 2003, people were still worried about using their credit cards online. But we thought, OK, there could be a way to do it ourselves – and it’s the best thing we ever did. When we launched in 2009 it was brilliant because this whole online community really responded to it – and its popularity has grown from there.”

The new Super Glue

The end product is a glue-like silicone rubber that is malleable out of the packet and able to bond to most materials, but one that is also watertight, as well as heat and cold resistant, when cured.

Those properties mean it can be used for anything from making wall mounts and hooks to everyday household repairs.

Sugru Source: YouTube

With an ambition to make Sugru as ubiquitous a household and office product as duct tape, Super Glue or Post-it notes, the company has gone from selling through its own website to DIY retailers like B&Q and Homebase across the UK.

Most recently, it has expanded sales to the US, where the product is expected to be in 10,000 outlets by the end of the year.

Ní Dhulchaointigh said the overwhelming response to Sugru’s crowdfunding campaign – which reached more than triple its £1 million target – meant the company had the money to fuel its growth well into next year.

Beyond then, the next step could be partnering with a larger firm to reach an even bigger scale, there was also the chance of tapping its customers and supporters through the crowdfunding network again.

Things have changed a lot in that it’s possible for small companies to do big things now. It’s not necessarily the case that you need to be a huge company to operate at (a global) scale – it’s more about the speed of that growth and if the demand is more than you can handle. For us, it will be about whatever is right for the product.”

Creating another Sugru

After over 10 years developing her idea into a multimillion-euro brand, what advice does Ní Dhulchaointigh have for would-be makers with their own product ambitions? Firstly, you’ll need some staying power.

“Really spend time with the idea and really explore from different angles why you are doing it. To have that sort of stamina you have to really believe in the purpose of it – that it’s going to be worth doing and that you can be patient about it.”

And the next lesson once budding product designers know they have a useful idea on their hands? Put it out there.

Get users involved early on and see how they react to it – even if the feedback is totally negative, it will give you some really good insights.”

Jane and pack

Ní Dhulchaointigh believes it is an exciting time for anyone innovating with physical products thanks to the instant ability to access the entire world through platforms like Kickstarter.

You can build a connected team of various skill sets that could be anywhere in the world. A lot of the maker movement is so global there is no reason why people wouldn’t think about making something, come up with a prototype and have it made in China within a week.”

“But we’re not like that,” she adds. “We’re a bit more traditional. Because we are designers, we found the quickest way to get something done right is to do it ourselves.”

READ: These are the jobs with the brightest futures in Ireland right now >

READ: The founder of the O’Briens sandwich chain is making a killing with Asian takeaway >

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About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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