Sugru’s Creator on Hacking the Stuff You Own

By Conor Rushby |

When the Time Top 100 Inventions list placed Sugru above the iPad in 2010, people sat up and took notice. A self-setting rubber for fixing and modifying your possessions, Sugru was launched to immediate success in 2009 and has gone from strength to strength ever since – and now it is building on its popularity here with this week’s German-language launch.

Sugru creator Jane ni Dhulchaointigh wanted to hack the stuff she already had rather than buy new things, and the versatile material allows for a variety of repairs, not least electrical and technological. Users have even made cables out of the stuff, owing to its combination of flexibility and hardness and superglue-like properties. This week Jane was in Berlin, and sat down with Silicon Allee to talk about how Sugru came about.

The company is based in the Hackney area of London in a a former button factory, where the product is made on site. The word Sugru means ‘play’ in Gaelic and it does indeed look a little bit like play dough. Made from silicon, when the sealed packs are opened the material reacts with moisture in the air and hardens. Once set, the substance is weather resistant, explaining Sugru’s wide appeal – from techies to snow boarders and gardeners.

Since conception, the team behind Sugru have been careful to nurture their online community and act upon their feedback, rather than relying on the input of designers and manufacturers. Jane said: “We really focused on that hacker community who are tech savvy and who love being clever and we also built it around people sharing way they do with it.” She added: “We’ve learned what it’s useful for now, we have several vertical customer groups – electronics, sports, home improvement, outdoor, while we’re getting more ideas of the markets and the territories that are interested in this.”

Jane had the idea when studying at the Royal College of Art. “I honed the concept when I came out of college, and hooked up with my business partner Roger Ashby – his background is engineering and commercializing university projects – and he hooked me up with two great retired scientists from Dow Corning. They had free time, and had lifetime experience in silicons, I said to them have you seen anything similar when you working with silicons, and they said, no this is a bit crazy.”

Practical and Unviersally Handy

That’s because silicon is usually developed for big industrial applications like self cleaning glass. Sugru, on the other hand, is more practical and universally handy, something larger organisations had not thought about.

It took five years to develop the product but that doesn’t mean investment came flowing in. They started out with a NESTA grant from the UK Government, and Jane said: “When I was pitching to investors pre-recession, they were interested in the next big thing, and they weren’t exactly the Sugru-type person – they’re rich, successful, and not people who would repair things themselves.”

She added: “It was slightly before its time, especially when I invented it in pre-recession [times], at that point nobody was really thinking about a problem being consumers. If something broke people would think, well, things break.” But now people are more careful about being wasteful – perfect for a product like Sugru.

Right now the company is funded by a syndicate of angel investors, while they’re in contact with VC firms. They have a European patent secured, are working on an American one, while Indian and Chinese patents are also in the pipeline.

Germany’s Great Repair Culture

Since launch, Sugru has proved very popular in Germany, with it being the third biggest market after the US and the UK. Jane said: “Over the years we’ve had a German online community, and the quality of submissions from our German customers has, on average, been better – like pictures. They’ve also got a great repair culture, so good at recycling, unlike say America which has a more disposable culture.”

The German website was launched in November, and last weekend they were launching the German packaging. So far Sugru is only stocked by Modular House near Mortizplatz, but they are currently recruiting a German marketing team for their London office, and are in talks with other shops too.

Packs come in primary colours so customers can play around to get their preferred hue. They also boast celebrity customers – James Davis of Team GB at the London Olympics used Sugru to personalise his foil. The company will now be hoping to remain at the sharp end of the business in Germany and around the world.