A ‘wonder putty’ that could win its inventor a prize this week has become a nightmare for investors. Can creator Jane ní Dhulchaointigh still prove the doubters wrong? She speaks to Etan Smallman
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Sugru is the mouldable glue that was quickly hailed as the wonder material of the future, the ultimate antidote to our disposable age and an aid for the disabled. Straight out of the packet it has the soft consistency of Play-Doh, but within 24 hours is as strong as rubber. Once dry, it bonds to almost anything.
It’s flexible, waterproof, shock-resistant, electrically insulating and temperature-resistant up to 180°C and down to -50°C. It was described as “21st century duct tape” by Forbes and listed by Time magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2010 – 12 places above the iPad.
However, it may equally go down in history as one of the most monumental failures of the early years of the crowdfunding revolution.
Two weeks ago, the company was sold to German adhesives giant Tesa for £7.6m. That might sound impressive for an enterprise still manufacturing out of small converted offices in Hackney, east London. But only a year ago, Sugru was judged to be worth far more.
It attracted 2,500 people to invest £1.9m via Crowdcube – having already broken the online platform’s record for biggest global reach with backers in 68 countries, and the largest single investment sum of £1m, all in its first round in 2015. The company was valued at £40m and anticipated a tripling of revenues by 2019.
Instead, exactly 12 months later, the takeover has seen crowdfunders lose 90 per cent of their investment overnight.
This week, the super glue’s Irishborn, London-based inventor, Jane ní Dhulchaointigh, finds herself in the sticky situation of receiving adulation and opprobrium in almost equal measure.
As she fends off howls of betrayal from some of her crowdfunders, she will be in Paris on Thursday to see if she has won the European Inventor Award for which she has been shortlisted.
In her first newspaper interview since the takeover, ní Dhulchaointigh insists she is “excited” about the future, while, to be honest, looking fairly bereft. She spent 8,000 hours in the lab perfecting Sugru’s formula and 15 years developing the business, which now exports to 175 countries, employs 70 staff and has helped fix 15 million objects.
Though she will stay on – as managing director – losses, debts and lower-than-expected sales have forced her to sell the firm, stripping her of control over the only product she ever wanted to invent.
On whether she now considers the crowdfunding a mistake, she tells i: “We can’t regret anything that we’ve done because we’ve done our best at every point. The fact that maybe there are a few shareholders now who are negative can’t outride the bigger picture, which is that the business has progressed and the partnership with Tesa is a validation of what those investors invested in.”
It all started when the 39-year-old had a crisis of conscience while studying product design at the Royal College of Art. Reluctant to churn out more stuff into the world, she set about creating something that could fix our ailing possessions instead.
Her “accidental invention” came about after she was mesmerised by the bouncing properties she achieved by combining silicone with sawdust.
“And then it resulted in this vision of a kind of ‘morph’ world where everything can change and people can tweak things and repair things and combine things.”
The inventor insists her husband is now as addicted as she is. “Yes, our house is held together with Sugru,” she says only half-jokingly.
A fan from Oxford deployed Sugru (which takes its name from the Irish word for “play”) to stick two GPS trackers to her tortoises to stop them getting lost in the garden. A woman in Ireland used it to make a foot to attach to her hen’s prosthetic leg.
“I think disability brings out the best in Sugru,” says ní Dhulchaointigh, “because that’s where there’s a very tangible benefit. We’ve had amazing stories – visually impaired people making tactile markers so they can use kitchen equipment, people adapting their wheelchairs.”
It is hard not to think that one of the company’s chief problems was that it was five or ten years ahead of the curve, with customers yet to catch up to its mission of “Fixing is good”.
“Yeah, well, definitely, I think it’s a matter of time,” responds ní Dhulchaointigh, before making a prediction that is unlikely to soothe bruised investors. “I hope that even if our shareholders can’t be part of the journey financially from now on, that they will eventually be rewarded by seeing the idea and product that they invested in become as successful as they wanted it to.”
The best inventors in the world
The best inventors in the world Fifteen inventors from across the globe are up for the European Inventor Award, for designers with work patented in Europe.
The only British-born team are wife and husband Eileen Ingham and John Fisher, of Leeds University, whose patented process prevents donor skin, tendon and heart valves being rejected by a recipient’s immune system. It involves washing donated tissue to remove almost all DNA, leaving a biological scaffold on which new material can be grown.
Brazilian-born Microsoft engineer Alex Kipman is shortlisted for his HoloLens mixed-reality smart glasses, which project hologram-like overlays on to real life. They have already been employed in computerassisted surgery to remove a tumour. German biochemist Thomas Scheibel is honoured for his mass production of artificial spider silk.
Sweden’s Mehrdad Mahdjoubi is a finalist thanks to his “closed-loop” shower that filters and reuses water as you go.