People have used Sugru, a silicone rubber resembling modeling clay, to customize ski polls in Antarctica, fix car cooling systems, and make bump-proof camera cases -- to name only a few of the product's uses. But Sugru’s inventor, Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, is facing a hefty challenge: marketing a product that helps you fix the things you already have.
Ní Dhulchaointigh believes that, as more people engage in open source and user-generated online platforms, consumers should expect to be able to manipulate and customize physical products as well. “I wanted to know how to make all products more flexible and more adaptable,” Ní Dhulchaointigh said.
On the other hand, resisting the impulse to buy shiny new things might be too much to ask three generations of store-to-trash consumers. While Sugru has attracted a niche DIY market, could a product focused on not buying new things become a household name?
Tell me about Sugru’s early years.
I grew up on a farm in Ireland. When I came to London, I thought, “I’m going to be a famous product designer.” I got into the Royal College of Art and soon realized I wasn’t that great a product designer and product design wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The clincher for me was that I actually didn’t really like new stuff. So much of product design is feeding this system of making people think they need new things.
I dreamt of a really functional Play-Doh. It took six years to invent the material technology and design, but that is what Sugru is today: a material that feels like Play-Doh when you take it out of the pack, you can form it into any shape, stick it on to things, and it will transform magically into a really nice durable silicone rubber overnight in room temperature.
You once said, Sugru is "an unusual idea that's slightly before its time." Is mending still too retro-futuristic for our age? Why do you think the product is before its time when not mending our possessions is a fairly new human trait? This process of consuming a lot and disposing of short-term items is fairly new.
That’s exactly why I think it’s before its time. The last two or three generations have been sold this idea that everything is cheap. But in fact we just haven’t been able to see the cost.
I can’t tell the future, but things are going to happen in the world that are much bigger than all of us -- like climate change, oil, and, of course, recessions where people just don’t have the money to buy stuff at the same rate. That means we will all need to be more resourceful.
Sugru is still a little bit of an in-the-know kind of thing. We believe someday it could be in everyone’s kitchen drawer beside the duct tape or crazy glue. But at the moment Sugru is being used mainly by people who know about new technology -- the creative-tech-geeky community. Those people use the things first that then everyone else uses in the future.
Those early people push the boundaries of what the product can be used for. When we launched we knew Sugru was useful -- we bothered to work on it for six years –- but we didn’t know exactly what people would use it for. This is what the Internet is brilliant for. We were able to put it out there and say, “This is Sugru, it’s exciting, these people use it for this, this, and this. What would you use it for?”
People have made all kinds of things with Sugru: mounts for their iPod, a way to refill travel toothpaste, fix faucets, fix laptop power cables which is a very common thing to break, customize ski polls, I mean, the list really goes on. Let’s talk about uses for Sugru. Not just the uses that surprised you and are fun to hear about, but also the uses that make Sugru seem like it could live beside the duct tape in your kitchen drawer.
There are three types of uses that I’m super-excited about. One is when we hear a story about Sugru making a real difference in someone’s life. We get emails all the time like, “Oh my god I would never think to try to do home repair and I tried Sugru on the vacuum cleaner and I can’t believe it works! I’m having so many ideas!” That’s amazing. They’ve gone from not being able to do something to being empowered and excited.
The other kind is when somebody creates something that hasn’t been created before. We have a number of people inventing and prototyping things. For example a dad who created a camera for his kids so they could learn photography. He put Sugru on the walls of a snappy camera so it would bounce if his kids dropped it.
The other, and probably the most exciting type of use surrounds utilitarian things that absolutely anyone might have a need for. And it’s not us doing market research, uses for Sugru are emerging out in the world.
So much stuff in our lives is made of molded plastic now and the problem is more often the plastic not the parts. For example, pieces breaking off printers, fridges, freezers, irons, hair straighteners, toasters -- all these things are made with molded plastic and tape and glue isn’t good enough. You need something waterproof and if there’s a missing piece you can’t glue it. Sugru has a very strong adhesive function like most plastics. It’s also 3D and you can blend the colors. Take the inside of a car, if the plastic gets cracked you can patch it. I love seeing things like that because it indicates to us there are uses that apply to almost anyone in their daily life.
The repairs and customizations that we can make with the product seem limitless, but what they require is this element of creativity and agency. You mentioned it’s still in a niche market -- you didn’t use the word DIY, but I wonder if Sugru was to become a household name, does that mean you have faith that that element of creativity exists on a massive scale?
Sugru promotes creativity in all its forms. What I mean by that is, although you may not consider yourself a creative person, if your freezer breaks and you can’t afford to replace the tray, then you have been turned into a resourceful person -- which I would consider a creative person who has to find a solution. We want to be part of a culture that helps people see you can solve things yourself.
Sugru has gotten a lot of attention in the DIY community. And in true DIY fashion, people are making their own Sugru substitutes made from cornstarch and clear silicone caulk -- I found one online called Oogoo. Are you excited or frustrated by this?
The truth is, I’m a DIYer and Sugru started as a DIY idea. The first version I made at design school was the DIY version. It smelled really bad and you couldn’t produce it on an industrial scale. But it got me so excited that I created the real Sugru -- the stuff that we can produce industrially, that has beautiful colors and is dishwasher safe and heat resistant. So it should be stressed that Sugru is patented technology and the DIY version isn’t anything like Sugru, but to see people making the DIY version is pretty cool. If I didn’t have the money for Sugru, had time on my hands and didn’t mind it smelling really bad and making a mess in the kitchen, I’d do it myself.
You have been at this for a while. Could you give me a sense of what’s going on with the company now? What insights do you have about the consumer culture we live in and how Sugru is challenging that in some way?
We started three years ago by launching our site and we’re now, fairly cautiously, expanding into retail. We’re stocked in the UK’s largest DIY store B&Q, the equivalent of Home Depot in the U.S. That happened in the last six months and it’s really exciting.
We’re based in London but since the beginning almost half our sales have come from the U.S. We have a logistics center there, but we haven’t had a dedicated team until the last two or three months. We’re launching at the MoMA Store in New York in the next week and The Container Store, which is nationwide.
We’re not sure whether there is a utilitarian mainstream market for Sugru yet. We think there’s a great possibility that it could be like that one day. We’re also very much a part of what people call the 'maker movement.’ Sugru is DIY technology but it also has a whole educational aspect. Young teenagers just gravitate toward it. It’s so natural for them. So we do a lot of events as well, facilitating young people to get into making and building and knowing how things work.