The Kiwi in­ven­tor of the wool suit­case (no joke) has a few words to say about in­no­va­tion in his home coun­try

Idealog - - Contents - – HAZEL PHILLIPS

Dan McLaugh­lin is the pi­o­neer of the wool suit­case. Sound mad? It is, a lit­tle bit. It’s the sort of story that only a Kiwi mak­ing waves in­ter­na­tion­ally could pos­si­bly come up with.

McLaugh­lin turned his hand to the chal­lenge of fig­ur­ing out what to do with wool waste af­ter grow­ing up around the wool in­dus­try; many of his school friends now run fam­ily prop­er­ties around the lower South Is­land, and tough sum­mers and low wool prices got him think­ing that there had to be more than one way to skin a cat.

He be­gan look­ing at how wool trans­fers out through the value chain – from be­ing grown on a sheep’s back to car­pet and then land­fill. A pa­per he read sug­gested seven per­cent of wool used in car­pet pro­duc­tion be­came waste.

“Waste be­came a ma­te­rial I ex­per­i­mented with and af­ter some quick and dirty tests, a di­rec­tion to pro­duce a ridged com­pos­ite be­came the chal­lenge,” McLaugh­lin says.

The re­sult is BioWool, a sub­strate cre­ated by com­bin­ing wool with bio-resins. It’s even­tu­ally biodegrad­able, strong and most of all, 100 per­cent re­new­able.

“We’ve grown up think­ing of wool as a fi­bre for gar­ments, in­te­rior tex­tiles and so on. The con­cept of mak­ing some­thing so fa­mil­iar dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent al­most seems al­most un­com­fort­able to fathom. How­ever, in the con­text of BioWool, wool is opened up for uses as an engineering ma­te­rial with in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties and I think that’s ex­cit­ing.”

McLaugh­lin now re­sides in the UK af­ter he moved there to do his mas­ters de­gree (a dou­ble Mas­ters in In­no­va­tion De­sign Engineering, to be pre­cise – a two-year MA and MSc taught at The Royal Col­lege of Art and Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don). He was in­volved in the team that cre­ated Air New Zealand’s Sky Couch, “hands-on in the front end”, bring­ing the con­cept to life in the form of low-fi pro­to­types and re­fin­ing them through phases of test­ing.

“I helped build the fi­nal in-house hi-fi pro­to­type and sup­ported the de­sign up to the point where the seat man­u­fac­turer was brought on board,” he says.

Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced in­no­va­tion over­seas, he has a few words to say about how things are done back home.

“I found fi­nan­cial sup­port in New Zealand to be ex­tremely chal­leng­ing,” he says, for one. “I find some irony in this now be­cause in­no­va­tion is a hot topic amongst the busi­ness com­mu­nity. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the UK has more sup­port avail­able for in­no­va­tion and de­sign ed­u­ca­tion.

“A num­ber of my UK friends were on full schol­ar­ships to study, so I was ex­tremely for­tu­nate as an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent to se­cure a £5,000 Dyson Bur­sary. Sir James Dyson was a tu­tor on the course years ago and his in­volve­ment and gen­eros­ity to the RCA and a num­ber of uni­ver­si­ties around the UK is pro­found.”

How­ever, he ap­plauds the “promis­ing ” stance New Zealand is tak­ing to­wards in­no­va­tion, with the likes of Cal­laghan In­no­va­tion and NZTE’s Bet­ter by De­sign gain­ing mo­men­tum.

“The crit­i­cal thing for in­no­va­tion to flour­ish above any skill set is the mind­set. Cul­ture is the ma­jor in­gre­di­ent to in­no­va­tion and from a high level, two fac­tors that ham­string the coun­try are our fear of fail­ure and sup­pres­sion of suc­cess, and it fil­ters into cor­po­rate cul­ture.”

McLaugh­lin ad­mits there is no sil­ver bul­let to in­no­va­tion, but points out that fu­ture po­ten­tial for “dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion” can be fos­tered on a grass­roots level on sev­eral fronts, such as greater col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween in­dus­try and academia (“groom­ing young peo­ple so they hit the ground run­ning ”); lever­ag­ing young Ki­wis who will al­ways move abroad (“ev­ery ex­pat is an am­bas­sador”); and de­vel­op­ing a busi­ness cul­ture that al­lows ex­plo­ration and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, trial and er­ror.

Mech­a­nisms – such as fa­cil­i­ties and net­works that al­low startup com­pa­nies to pro­lif­er­ate – are also key.

And while spare time hasn’t ex­actly been a dis­pos­able com­mod­ity over the past few years, he’s now tak­ing a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in “next-gen­er­a­tion rugby im­pact pro­tec­tion”, as well as the yacht­ing and ma­rine in­dus­try and pub­lic trans­porta­tion de­sign.

“My main fo­cus re­cently has been ex­plor­ing var­i­ous routes of de­vel­op­ment for the BioWool ma­te­rial both at home and abroad.”

And he’s keen to hear from Kiwi com­pa­nies across the board that are strug­gling to break the sta­tus quo, so get in touch: dan.mclaugh­lin@net­work.rca.ac.uk.

“To­gether we can de­liver change through in­no­va­tion that so­lid­i­fies busi­ness bot­tom line, in­ter­na­tion­alises of­fer­ings and gen­er­ates top-line growth.”

Above: The ‘male and fe­male’ tool­ing de­signed to mould the suit­case un­derpres­sure. This im­age: Fit­ting the fi­nal de­tails.

Top: An early ‘lay up’ of wet wool resin. One of sev­eral early at­tempts to scale the ma­te­rial from a 200 x 200mm sam­ple to a lug­gage-size sam­ple. Bot­tom im­age: Form­ing the carded waste wool fi­bre prior to resin im­preg­na­tion.

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