Sugru founder on new conversations about failure

14 Feb 2014

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, co-curator of the Fail Better exhibition at Science Gallery in Dublin, and inventor of Sugru. Images via Science Gallery

The latest exhibition at Science Gallery in Dublin is about perspectives on failure, as Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh tells Claire O’Connell.

We have all experienced failure. Maybe it’s a flunked exam, missing the medals in a race or watching a business idea tank. But is failure the end? Or is it an opportunity to learn, change direction and move on to more interesting beginnings?

Fail Better, the new exhibition at Dublin’s Science Gallery, wants to open up new conversations around failure, according to co-curator Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh.

“In the business and start-up world it is a cliché it is so talked about, you are not an entrepreneur if you haven’t failed two times already,” she says. “But [for] young people in other fields it is still quite a taboo subject, especially in education.”

Failures of note

That’s why Fail Better, which opened last week, encourages visitors to think in new ways about failure. Exhibits, which come with short explanations from their nominators, include a large fuse that explores the need for failure to short-circuit disaster, and explorer Ranulph Fiennes’ boots that weren’t up to the task on Mount Everest, prompting him to choose more wisely on subsequent expeditions.

There’s a wool sculpture of synthetic mauve to portray Ken Robinson’s choice: in 1856 William Perkin accidentally discovered the dye when his experiment to make quinine failed but he discovered the mauve chemical that spawned the synthetic dye industry.

Sonia O’Sullivan explains what her Atlanta Olympics pass means to her and Mark Pollock’s nominated exhibit is actor Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair.

There are literary angles, too – manuscript drafts from Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho provide the immortal words, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,’ and Flann O’Brien’s hat comes with an explanation from author Anne Enright.

Changes of direction point the way

“We want to open the conversation to show that there are so many ways of looking at everything and evaluating – is failure the opposite of success or is it the starting point for a new direction?” says Ní Dhulchaointigh.

She had some changes of direction herself on the way to inventing Sugru, a versatile self-setting material for making, improving and fixing objects.

From Kilkenny, she moved to Dublin to study sculpture at the National College of Art and Design, but soon realised it wasn’t meant to be.

“I failed pretty quickly at being an artist, the odds are stacked against you,” she recalls. “So I decided I would go into product design. I thought that will be a way I can use my creativity for making a difference to people.”

Ní Dhulchaointigh moved to London and studied at the Royal College of Art, where she changed tack again.

“My background in sculpture gave me that hands-on side to things, so I thought maybe I could go designing materials,” she recalls. “And through experimenting, by accident I invented a material that had some of the characteristics of what Sugru is today. I could mould it into different shapes and it had adhesive properties and it was rubbery. The led to me imagining what if there was this space-age rubber that would let anyone be a designer: anyone could adapt the shape of things and maintain things.”

Fail Better Tweet machine

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, co-curator of the Fail Better exhibition at Science Gallery in Dublin, and inventor of Sugru, with a machine at Fail Better that prints out tweets featuring the hashtag #failbetter

Sugru takes shape

Ní Dhulchaointigh teamed up with experts in silicones to develop Sugru (the name of the material is a play on the Irish word ‘sugradh’, meaning ‘play’). It took around six years to get the product ready to launch, which it did in late 2009, and it is the perfect ‘fixer’ product for recessionary times.

“People have less money and they want to repair things, but as well I think there has been a general reflection on value,” says Ní Dhulchaointigh. “People want to take a more thoughtful approach to life and needless waste feels bad. It feels bad to put a saucepan in the bin just because the knob is missing off the lid or it feels bad to get a new fridge just because two of the doors are broken.”

Household consumers, engineers and scientists have now embraced the versatile material and the company is looking to develop Sugru for other sectors, she adds.

Fixperts for design that works

For the Fail Better exhibition, which Ní Dhulchaointigh curates with Science Gallery director Dr Michael John Gorman, she nominated ‘Fixperts‘, a social project that provides a platform for sharing knowledge. The Science Gallery exhibit shows how student designers made a long-handled gadget to solve a problem for an older lady who had difficulty putting on her own socks.

Fixperts is all about pairing up hands-on people who can imagine and make a better solution with people in the community that have needs,” explains Ní Dhulchaointigh. “The measure of success isn’t how many likes does it get on a blog, the measure of success is that it solves somebody’s real problem.”

Follow your instincts to keep interested

For those thinking about their future careers, Ní Dhulchaointigh has some practical advice.

“If you look for people that inspire you, you will often find that they have ended up in areas, jobs or professions where they didn’t start out. Along the way there have been so many tangents and things they have tried and not worked, and failure is just an inevitable part,” she says. “So at each step you should choose the right thing for where you are at at that time – follow your instinct for what you are good at and what gets you going. If you keep following that at every turn, you will be interested for the rest of your life.”

Fail Better is now running at Science Gallery, Pearse Street, Dublin 2. Entrance is free. For opening times see Science Gallery’s website.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication