Her invention is sugru, a mouldable hacking putty. What makes it unique is that, once removed from its pack, the user has 30 minutes to form this malleable material into the desired shape by hand and bond it to a range of objects and surfaces. It will then cure within 24 hours into a strong, flexible silicon rubber that is both heat-resistant and waterproof.
The aim of the putty is to help people repair, improve and personalise their products. This can vary from mending broken power cables and fixing leaky boots to stopping a chair leg from wobbling and customising handles on kitchen utensils.
It was while undertaking her Masters in Product Design at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) in 2003 that Ni Dhulchaointigh came up with the first prototype of sugru. “With my background in sculpture I thought that something strong and original I could bring to design would be new material aesthetics, so I started experimenting. It was very random – destroying things and putting them back together again in different ways,” she explains.
This experimentation led her to create a substance, a combination of silicone sealant and wood dust, that although messy enabled her to modify a knife handle to improve its ergonomics. She wondered whether a material like this could actually exist. So for her degree show project she designed a book full of illustrations showing all the different uses for such a material.
At the RCA Degree Show 2004 she received a great deal of interest in this concept material. Spurred on to make it a reality, she applied for and was awarded a grant and through that was introduced to her current business partner. Then, in order to find out if such a material existed or how to go about creating it, she teamed up with two retired scientists from Dow Corning, a global silicone supplier.
Ni Dhulchaointigh set up a small laboratory in London with the help of the scientists, who taught her how to be a lab technician. “Our lab set-up was pretty basic in the beginning,” she says. “Good weighing scales, a hot plate, some basic tools and lots of notebooks.”
It marked the start of two long years of chemical formulation work. “The years of developing the science was an incredible learning curve, but I found it super interesting,” says Ni Dhulchaointigh. “For me the biggest learning was in making progress – the key was to involve people with the right expertise and to realise that it was often not only cheaper but quicker to learn how to do something myself.”
One of the biggest challenges during this time was in achieving the adhesive properties. “Getting sugru to stick to a whole range of surfaces was incredibly challenging. Normally you have a glue for paper, another for plastics and another for wood. For sugru to be good value for the user, it needed to stick to as many things as possible,” explains Ni Dhulchaointigh.
The hard work did pay off because they eventually managed to get it to adhere to a wide variety of materials, from hard plastics like Perspex and ABS, through to wood, fabric, steel, aluminium, glass and ceramics.
As well as adhesion, the other properties that Ni Dhulchaointigh aimed for were durability and flexibility, strength and grip, while also making it soft to touch, stable at high and low temperatures, waterproof and able to be removed with a knife once cured.
“It was a hard slog to crack the first chemistry,” confesses Ni Dhulchaointigh, but in mid 2006 they had their first real success in the chemical formulations and applied for patents. This resulted in further investment funding, which helped them continue the product development. Essentially what they have created is a formulation of Formerol: Formerol F.10, to be precise.
According to Ni Dhulchaointigh, it combines the adhesive properties of silicon glues and sealants with the mouldability of industrial silicones.
Although they had received a small amount already, by far the biggest challenge was funding. They knew that in order to get sugru onto the market they needed to build a partnership with a global glue company.
But according to Ni Dhulchaointigh, although they had made friends with the big glue brands who did help by giving advice, none was prepared to invest the money to launch sugru. In 2007 and 2008 she made over 100 investment pitches and only two
By December 2008 they had hit a real low point, but Ni Dhulchaointigh was still encouraged by the feedback she was receiving from their trial users who were emailing photos of how they were using sugru. She started to wonder whether they could build their own brand and launch it themselves. A friend also gave her a piece of advice during this time that she’ll never forget – start small and make it good.
At last, in June 2009 a private investor put up just enough funding for them to bite the bullet and launch sugru. They gave themselves just six months and in that time they built the brand, created the packaging and designed a website.
“The packaging design had to be gorgeous. There was no point putting something into the world unless it was better than what the glue companies could do. We also wanted to design a website that could communicate why this material is so exciting,” says Ni Dhulchaointigh.
In addition they also had to come up with a name, which, as Ni Dhulchaointigh explains, is very tricky as it needed to be just one or two syllables, easy to pronounce in a variety of languages and also look good visually. The name actually came to her in a flash of inspiration one day while riding downhill on her bicycle – what if they adapted the Irish word for ‘play’, sugradh?
Having converted the lab into a little factory with a small mixer and handmade packaging machine, Ni Dhulchaointigh roped in friends and family to help them make and pack sugru. In a month they had made 1000 packs, which each contained 12 minipacks of either multicoloured or black and white sugru. With the website launched and a few sample packs sent to selected technology and design journalists, they sat and waited.
They didn’t have to wait long – 1 December 2009 was a real tipping point for this small company. A UK newspaper journalist posted a video about sugru on his blog. Other design blogs soon picked this up and within just six hours all 1000 packs were sold to people in 21 countries.
“The most amazing day was when the world found out about sugru. For six years we’d been working behind the scenes, and putting every ounce of energy and every penny into it. There were moments when we weren’t sure we could continue,” says Ni Dhulchaointigh.
The following day, they put 2000 packs up for pre-order and these sold out in just 10 hours. Investors also started getting in touch, which enabled them to move into a bigger facility, set up a supply chain and employ a few more people.
After a six-month ramp-up, sugru relaunched in June 2010 with an updated website and a full warehouse. In the first week, they shipped to more than 40 countries. The brand now has customers in over 100 countries. “In less than two years we’ve produced 100 000 packs – that’s almost a mile of individually wrapped minipacks,” she says.
The sugru online community has also grown to around 50 000 people, who send in stories and photos of what they have been doing with the material. These range from fixing their sink, creating grips on ski poles, re-lining wakeboarding boots and modifying water sprinklers.
“The way that sugru has gained the attention it has is through the creativity of some of its users – they’ve done some really amazing stuff,” says Ni Dhulchaointigh.
All of these emails encouraged her to feature a ‘Hack of the Month’ on the website. One of her favourites is from an industrial designer in Germany who ingeniously covered his camera with soft sugru walls, making it drop-proof so that his three-year-old could happily take photos with it.
Ni Dhulchaointigh and her team were so taken with it that they recreated the camera and posted a video on the sugru website. “It has almost 100 000 views on YouTube and it continues to get shared,” she comments.
Although this hack is colourful and fun, it also proves that sugru is a great technical solution. “The material needs to be incredibly durable, have fantastic dampening qualities to be weather – and water – resistant, as well as have incredible adhesion. These qualities make it a material that is increasingly being used by engineers as well.”
However, the product development never ceases. “We have been developing the chemistry iteratively since the beginning – the work continues,” comments Ni Dhulchaointigh. One of the things they are hoping to improve is increasing the shelf life of an unopened sugru pack to beyond six months.
But they’ve come a long way and Ni Dhulchaointigh is immensely proud of their achievements so far. “We are on a mission to get as many people in the world repairing and improving their stuff and we think that someday sugru will be like Velcro and duct tape – a solution that everyone will know about. So we have a long way to go yet and a lot more fun to be had!”