Sugru is a self-setting rubber material which sticks tight to almost any surface
Irish inventor tells CNN about how she created the versatile product and its worldwide success
Silicone-based product molds like putty but remains extremely strong and supple
Sugru hacks regularly posted on Twitter and YouTube by satisfied customers
It´s the ultimate repair tool. A silicone material that can be shaped like playdough, can bond to almost any surface and after a few hours of exposure to air becomes a super tough, durable rubber.
“Sugru” - coming from the Irish word for “play” - is now being used to fix leaky pipes, create custom-made handles and even help a disabled, fingerless canoeist modify one of her paddles.
Unlike existing moldable putty, Sugru doesn’t go rock hard when dry, but stays flexible, waterproof and heat resistant up to 180 degrees Celsius (356 degrees Fahrenheit).
“We think that Sugru can be something as big or bigger than duct tape, superglue or anything else that you use to repair,” says its Irish-born inventor Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh.
However, like many great inventions before, it only came into existence by chance.
Ni Dhulchaointigh, a design student at the Royal College of Art in London at the time, had been messing around in the workshop, trying out new combinations of materials when she started mixing silicone adhesive and wood-waste into small balls.
They looked like wood when finished, but when you threw them on the floor they would bounce. “I thought, that’s random,” says Ni Dhulchaointigh, who admits many other designers might have then left it at that.
“But for me, I knew that there was something there. There was something a little bit magical. I just didn’t know what it was.”
It was only as she began using bits of the material around her home to repair things that she had what she calls her “eureka moment” and came to realize its real usefulness and application.
“Every time I’d make up a batch of it for my experiments, I’d have bits left over. I hate wasting stuff so I started using the leftovers around my house just to fix little things, I modified a kitchen knife that was really uncomfortable. My sink plug was just slightly too small, so I just made a little ring to make that work.
“I was doing it completely unconsciously. And I was there beating myself up going, I can’t find the application for this material, until my boyfriend James said to me one night, maybe there’s not this one perfect thing for this material. Maybe what you’re doing in the kitchen is actually the thing.”
It took six years of hard work before the first packs of her material were being sold to consumers. Her story from the workshop to marketplace, together with the help of business partners and friends, has been a familiar one of luck, near bankruptcy and late salvation.
“It has been a long journey,” she says. “First of all, the technology has been difficult to invent. But second of all, you know, we’re not a big company with big budgets behind us.”
“We’ve been doing it on a shoestring for years. And anyone who’s ever pitched for investment funding will know it’s a bitch. It’s really difficult for an unlikely group of people to get investment funding. I mean, we probably pitched to over 100 investors where we got, maybe two or three over the years.”
Around 2008, five years after she first came up with the idea, with a product almost ready to launch, Jane and her small team of partners found themselves close to running out of money, as promised investment from major manufacturers failed to materialize.
In a last ditch attempt, they decided to scrape together enough money to build their own “little cottage industry factory” and do it themselves. And with the help of family and friends they put together 1,000 packs.
“What we’re quite good at is design, it’s what we do, so we had a fantastic package design and a really great website design. When we went live it looked like we were much bigger than we were.”
From that point, the investors came on board fast and in less than three years they have ballooned to annual sales of $2 million, a staff of 25 and a customer base of more than 100,000 across 100 countries.
Perhaps, the most unique thing about Sugru is that its practical uses is being demonstrated not by its inventor, but by the general public.
Thousands of people have posted comments and pictures on Twitter, YouTube and other websites showing how they have put the material to good use.
“We get emails every day with pictures and stories of what people have done. They do things with it that we couldn’t have dreamed of. It feels like magic sometimes.”
Ni Dhulchaointigh says her product is the ultimate tool in the battle against wastefulness.
“I think it can really benefit our urban way of life, where we depend so much on buying new things all the time and replacing them if they’re not quite right. It’s not only wasteful, but it doesn’t make the most of us as human beings with all the potential that we have.”