The incredible renewable woollen suitcase

Biowool's Dan McLaughlin, the Kiwi inventor of the wool suitcase (no joke) has a few things to say about innovation in his home country.

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

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.

biowool wool suitcase dan mclaughlinThe 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.” 

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