Press release | 24.4.2018
Munich, 24 April 2018 - We live in a society that makes it easy for us to discard damaged or broken items and replace them with new products. However, this convenience puts the environment under tremendous strain. One answer to help curb the large numbers of various possessions that are thrown away worldwide on a daily basis comes in the form of a putty-like, mouldable glue pioneered by Irish inventor Jane ní Dhulchaointigh, which allows us to mend objects like never before. With her invention – sold as a consumer product under the name Sugru – ní Dhulchaointigh aims to reshape our relationship with the things we own by enabling us to repair, modify and improve.
For this achievement, Jane ní Dhulchaointigh and her team have been nominated as finalists for the European Inventor Award 2018 in the category "Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises". The winners of this year's edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on 7 June 2018.
"Jane ní Dhulchaointigh's invention invites us to rethink our behaviour when it comes to discarding damaged or broken items in favour of a more considerate treatment of our environment," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli, announcing the European Inventor Award 2018 finalists. "Her invention is proof that innovative European SMEs can benefit from patents to effectively establish their leadership in the development of sustainable consumer products."
On the farm in Kilkenny, Ireland, where ní Dhulchaointigh was raised, replacing everyday items was not easy, which meant things needed to be repaired or modified. And it was against this personal backdrop that she went on to study sculpture in Dublin, then earn a master's degree in Product Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London in 2003. During this time, she came up with her idea for a mouldable glue to "fix and improve and reimagine the stuff I already have".
"It was a happy accident," the inventor says of her breakthrough. "My interest in materials and making things with my hands was very strong and the two things came together in this idea for a magical material. It comes from what we play with as children – everyone knows how to model things and shape things with their hands."
The challenge, she says, was creating something fun and playful that also had the properties, not of a toy, but of a performance material: "Because with any kind of glue or adhesive, it has really got to work and it's really got to last."
Having set up her company with husband James Carrigan and Roger Ashby, a UK entrepreneur with decades of experience founding companies and supporting university start-ups, Jane ní Dhulchaointigh enlisted the services of a pair of retired silicone scientists in addition to materials specialist Tom Dowdon – now the company's principal researcher – to help create her "magical material".
Ní Dhulchaointigh's idea of a mouldable, rubber-like glue designed with the do-it-yourself user in mind was entirely new to the adhesive industry, and its originality required legal protection. The inventor acknowledges that a patent “was critical to making the whole project work” because “most products like adhesives are developed by huge corporations” and it was therefore important for her to obtain the same level of protection that is available to industry players. She also emphasises that the patent was “the only way to raise the finance that would be needed to develop the invention.”
Sugru, a product that is as malleable as clay yet has the adhesive qualities of superglue, was launched on the market in 2009. It was the culmination of nearly five years of development, more than 8 000 hours that ní Dhulchaointigh spent in her lab and feedback from a 150 - strong user community. Appropriately for a product named after the Irish word for play, the mouldable glue is fun, versatile and easy to use. It adheres to most materials, including metal, glass, and fabric, and remains mouldable for approximately 30 minutes after being removed from its packaging and then requires about 24 hours to cure to a rubbery finish. Once set, it remains strong, flexible, waterproof and able to withstand high and low temperatures. It can also bear weights up to two kilogrammes and is available in a variety of colours.
Unlike similar products such as adhesive tapes and glues, ní Dhulchaointigh's product can be moulded to form "missing parts", such as a handle for a favourite coffee cup. Among its wide range of uses, it can be fashioned into useful household items such as hooks for kitchen utensils, or used to customise switches and buttons on cameras and mobile phones.
With the underpinning of a strong social media campaign and some very positive media and blogger reviews, the product's success was instant. The first 1 000 packets were snapped up within six hours of its launch.
Currently ní Dhulchaointigh's company estimates that it has 2.5 million users worldwide. The community of people that share their experiments and experiences with the product online have worked with the product in 175 countries to mend and customise more than 15 million objects, including a camera sent into space by schoolchildren and a prosthetic foot for a chicken.
"I had a very clear idea for what Sugru could become," explains ní Dhulchaointigh. "It wasn't just an idea for a product that maybe somebody might like. I actually believed that there's the potential to change the world here. It took a lot of hard work and the thing that keeps us going is that it is making a difference to people's lives and we can see that from every email and story from our users thanking us for what it has enabled them to do."
The customer inclusion strategy adopted by the inventor's company, FormFormForm, has not only allowed people to share their ideas about how to use and improve Sugru. It helped generate nearly EUR 6 million of crowdfunding investment into the company through 2017.
Only one of two mouldable glues currently on the market, Sugru, which is also produced for industrial applications under the name Formerol®, is sold online and in more than 6 000 stores around the world.
Given the uniqueness of ní Dhulchaointigh's invention the glue does not easily fall into a product category. The market for adhesives and sealants, in which Sugru has essentially created an entirely new sub-sector, is forecast to grow globally from EUR 42.7 billion in 2016 to EUR 54.7 billion by 2021.
In 2010, TIME magazine placed Sugru 22nd on its list of the 50 Best Inventions of the Year (the iPad was placed 34th the same year), while in 2014, Sugru (FormFormForm) won the London Living Wage Company of the year, in recognition of the firm's dedication to paying its staff a wage linked to the cost of living in the city.
A keen cyclist and gardener, ní Dhulchaointigh has used her product to customise her bike and says there are thousands of applications of the product throughout her house, including hooks attached at the right height above the radiator for her two young children to hang their coats.
As advocates of repairing over replacing, the Irishwoman and her company see themselves as "a business on a mission" and part of a larger global repair movement trying to reduce waste and address environmental challenges by fixing everything from desk lamps to cars.
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View the patent: EP2089465
Don't be deceived by this invention's apparent simplicity. Ní Dhulchaointigh gathered a team of materials experts and chemists, and she spent thousands of hours in the lab to create a specialised glue with the expressed goal of cutting down on clutter. She joins a list of EIA finalists and winners who have turned to the power of chemistry to solve some of our most pressing environmental and waste-related issues. Plant-based plastic bottles developed by Gert-Jan Gruter (2017; finalist - SMEs) are aimed at reducing our reliance on petrochemicals. Günter Hufschmid (2017; winner - SMEs) invented a special wax substance to soak up oil spills. A team of Italian scientists led by Catia Bastioli (2007; winner - SMEs/Research) created a new type of bioplastic that decomposes faster.
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