Named by CNN as one of the top tech superheroes to watch in 2015, Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh is living up to the accolade. The creator of a mouldable glue called Sugru, she is set for world domination and has her eyes set on the multi-billion dollar DIY and toy markets.
Last week, Sugru raised £3,548,820 from 2,700 investors in a crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube after initially setting out to raise £1m. The campaign smashed two equity crowdfunding records: with the largest single investment of £1m and by having the widest reach with stakeholders in 68 countries. The pitch overfunded 355pc above the original target.
“Shell-shocked,” is the word Ní Dhulchaointigh uses to describe the funding for Sugru, which she co-founded with serial entrepreneur Roger Ashby.
Described by Forbes Magazine as “21st century Duct Tape” Sugru is an adhesive that moulds like play-dough and sticks to almost anything by turning into a strong, flexible rubber within 24 hours. Manufactured in east London, Sugru is planning to expand globally and aims to create seven factories around the world that will make the material close to their target markets.
“Crowdfunding has become a viable option for growth-stage companies and that aspect of the funding industry is maturing,” says London-based Ní Dhulchaointigh, who arrived in the city more than a decade ago to study product design and still hasn’t lost a trace of her Kilkenny accent.
“We planned to raise £1m because we thought that would be realistic and decided that we’d go out to the venture capital community later in the year or next year, but we have been blown away by the support.
“Now we can just focus on executing without the distraction of fundraising. Everyone is really intent on hitting ambitious targets and there will be lots of travel involved, lots of complexity to deal with and we will be hiring people in the UK and North America, building up our IT system and other big ticket items that will allow us to scale properly.”
Ní Dhulchaointigh has been named by CNN as one of seven “tech superheroes” to watch in 2015 and Sugru was named by Time magazine as one of the 50 best inventions in the world the year it launched.
She sounds slightly embarrassed when I throw these accolades at her. “I think in reality people might accuse me of being a bit naïve. The vision has always been the same, to create something as universal and ordinary as Duct Tape or superglue, something that is handy, ubiquitous and that can scale.
“We started small, selling products on the internet and being close to our users. Now our product is online, on Amazon, in B&Q and in Target in the US.
“Our goal hasn’t changed but how we’re arriving there has certainly changed.”
Now Ní Dhulchaointigh is focused on the growth strategy, forging new retail alliances and growing the company’s headcount beyond its current complement of 45 people.
Ní Dhulchaointigh studied sculpture at NCAD in Dublin. “After I left college I realised I wanted to do something more applied with creativity, something that would improve people’s daily lives in a good way.”
She came to London to study product design, which she modestly says she wasn’t really good at. This claim is clearly belied by the success of Sugru, but Ní Dhulchaointigh makes a point about the current product design focus evident in the tech industry.
“Product design has a dark side, which is all about consumption and getting people to consume more and more, using designed-in obsolescence. You can see this in batteries in phones, fashion … ‘this couch is so last year’.
“It didn’t really match up with what I wanted to do and I have always been passionate about the power of creativity to allow people to express themselves.
“A whole bunch of products came together and at the time I was experimenting with materials and one of those experiments produced a material that I could mold and that would stick to things.”
Ní Dhulchaointigh realised that this material was ideal for fixing things or allowing DIYers to make small improvements. It can be used to fix shoes, tables, rubber parts on washing machines and particularly flexible things that need to move. For example, Ní Dhulchaointigh says one of its uses could be preventing door handles from bouncing off walls.
“In 2004 I was at a graduation show and I had a prototype and a little booklet that suggested 100 uses for the material and it fired people’s imaginations.
“When social media came along that was the gift for us. A whole community sprung up telling each other how to use Sugru and that really brought us to the next level.”
Ní Dhulchaointigh and her colleagues spent six years formulating and creating the technology behind the material. “When I made the first formulation in college the material was very crude, so we teamed up with scientists and designers and developed the intellectual property.”
The original plan was to work with a global adhesives maker to license the product. “They were fascinated, but mystified, and weren’t convinced they needed a new product category.
‘We see the toy market as our biggest next opportunity after home DIY’
– JANE NÍ DHULCHAOINTIGH
“They are used to more iterative innovations and it came to a point in 2008 that I realised that if I really want this to happen we’re going to have to do it ourselves.
“Luckily there hasn’t been a greater time for an individual to put a product out because e-commerce creates a global market and that’s exactly what we found.”
Ní Dhulchaointigh was careful to patent the IP behind Sugru and didn’t want to fall victim to a popcorn moment where suddenly 2bn other people can make popcorn.
“We filed our patents and put a lot of hard work into commercialising the product and we avoided the popcorn fate of going bang right away.
“There’s a lot of science and secret processes we use, even our suppliers and where we source them right down to the costs of producing Sugru. There is a lot of complexity.
“We have our own factory in east London and as we grow out in different markets we will establish local manufacturing hubs. The idea is that we will replicate our small pilot factory with several small factories in the right locations.”
Having established a beachhead in DIY, another market that Sugru is moving into is the toy business. “That’s another side of the business that is exciting because of the huge innovation potential. At the moment, we are selling one product but there is so much scope in terms of toys. Our DNA is product design and innovation so we’ve got a whole bunch of ideas and we’ve got to stay focused on executing our strategy.
“We have a major R&D project on the chemistry side to make a version of Sugru that is safe for kids. We see the toy market as our biggest next opportunity after home DIY.”
After graduating, Ní Dhulchaointigh secured a grant in the UK to pursue Sugru and she finds the UK to be a world leader in product design education. It is also a good hub for distributing the company’s product.
“The first day we shipped to 21 countries and now we are available in over 160 countries. Myself and the sales team have spent a lot of time on airplanes and increasingly in North America where we get more than 50pc of our revenues.
“I’m not based there yet, but we are certainly spending a lot of time there.”
Her aim is to increase Sugru’s foothold among American retailers and the recent crowdfunding will come in handy in terms of marketing and building customer awareness.
“The crowdfunding surprised us in terms of how powerful it has been and I am excited by the idea of leveraging our network of over 2,700 investors to help grow our reach.
“Crowdfunding is wonderful for building a motivated community, a genuine community where people are working for the same things. It just feels more Sugru.”
As well as North America, Ní Dhulchaointigh wants to see Sugru sell in Latin America and she sees industrial partnerships as vital in that regard.
“We are at a growth stage now where in two years’ time it might make more sense to forge industrial partnerships rather than [partnerships] with venture capitalists. It’s hard to say.”
Industries and entrepreneurs of the future
“This is the makers’ time,” Ní Dhulchaointigh says excitedly. “I think everyone is very excited by the lowering of costs of making things and the access to digital fabrication. Some people have even 3D printed using Sugru.
“It definitely would have been very intimidating to make physical products a decade ago. Crowdfunding has revolutionised everything in terms of how accessible it is.”
She said that all over the world there are makers’ spaces popping up in towns and cities with 3D printers, CNC machines and other industrial tools that allow anybody to be an inventor and creator. “No one really needs to invest in machinery to do R&D anymore.
“I also find it compelling that you can learn to do a lot of these things. I didn’t know how to do chemistry before I wanted to make Sugru, I was a design student.
“The thing is, if you come up with something you really believe in you can learn the tools and skills to get there. The culture is all about people sharing and teaching others.
Ní Dhulchaointigh concluded: “It’s a hugely exciting time to be in business and do whatever you want, even if you are not necessarily qualified to do it.
“There is no better time than now.”
Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Eircom, Fidelity Investments, ESB, Accenture and CoderDojo.