Meet Matt Johnson, one of the founders of Bare Conductive and creators of electrically conductive paint. His innovative product has helped bridge a gap between electronics and art as well as helping simplify electrical circuits for those who may not be the most tech savvy.
We were lucky enough to get to ask him some question and delve into his story of how he launched a new product, his thoughts on what it means to make, and advice he has for young inventors.
techspecs: Can you give us an overview of Bare Conductive?
Matt Johnson: Bare Conductive is a London, UK based startup that produces a unique electrically conductive paint, along with associated kits and hardware. The core of our business is based around a material that we developed during a student project: a non-toxic electrically conductive paint. You can think of it as a paintable wire. Apply it to a surface, let it dry and it becomes conductive. We sell the material in pens and jars as well as inside our kits. But as we’ve grown, we’ve realised that our business is really about much more than the paint, it’s about creating a technology platform upon which other people can innovate. We split our time equally between developing new products and nurturing this platform. We want our community to show us what they think our materials are for, whether its combining papercraft and electronics, creating interactive surfaces or even repairing conventional electronics.
techspecs: How did you get your start?
Matt Johnson: Our business was born from a student project. At the end of our studies we had a prototype material that we were able to put in the hands of our friends and colleagues. This was crucial in laying the foundation for the business because we were able to give the material to other people so that they could test it out in their projects. Out of all of the early projects though, the most important was an online music video that we did in collaboration with Sony Music UK. It was a lot of fun, but most importantly it gave us some significant exposure. It was the incredible amount of feedback from this viral video that helped us to realise that we might have a business on our hands.
techspecs: Where did the idea of creating electrically conductive materials come from?
Matt Johnson: In 2009, I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, UK alongside my three colleagues (Becky, Bibi, and Isabel). As part of our research we found some incredible electronic textiles work, but the way that these pieces were constructed often felt bulky and awkward. We wondered if there was a way to eliminate, or at least dramatically rethinking the wiring. Could we soften the electronics? We then began to imagine what it would mean if you could paint or print circuits onto different materials. Though conductive paints and inks are not new, we had created a new context for them, demanding a new approach to their materials science and application. After playing with this concept some more, we spent months in the kitchen, mixing, testing and dreaming about the possibilities of such a technology. By the end of the project we had a working prototype for a non-toxic, electrically conductive paint.
techspecs: What kinds of projects did you work on as a kid?
MJ: For me, it was anything with wheels (and frankly it still is!). But I also spent a lot of time playing with electronics, models and improvised forts! I was lucky enough to have a family who supported my habit of taking things apart and subsequently losing all of the pieces. We had a room in our house with a workbench, a vice and a bunch of hand tools. I spent a lot of time down there taking things apart, seeing what was inside and then trying to put them back together. I still do this of course, but usually everything goes back together now with no missing screws! The freedom to experiment, make mistakes and get acquainted with many materials and disciplines is crucial for Makers and is best-developed young. Being a Maker is about feeling confident to question and change the world around you.
techspecs: What advice do you have for students who have an idea and want to turn it into a business?
MJ: START RIGHT NOW and keep it simple. Ask yourself three questions about your idea: Why am I doing this? What am I going to do first? And how will I do it? If you can answer the Why, What and How, you are off to a fantastic start. The next step is getting a prototype of your product or service in front of potential customers. You could do this via a crowd-funding site, a tradeshow, a YouTube video or just walking door to door. Once you’re confident that people might want to purchase the product you’ve got a business on your hands! There are of course a lot of steps to take on the journey from idea to prototype to product, but you’ve got to start simple and not overthink it. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of starting a business. But in our experience, the complexity and difficulties of running a business don’t come all at once and you’re usually ready for them when they arrive. The most important thing is to GET STARTED!
techspecs: Bare Conductive has seen great accomplishments in just a few years, where do you see it going in the next 5 years?
MJ: Even as students we were confident that the value of what we were creating was not just in the material itself, but also in the platform for innovation that this material created. We’ve seen this platform grow very quickly in the last two years and are sure that it will continue to do so. But we have to fuel this growth by providing, new materials, new kits, new applications and new hardware. The next five years will be about building a landscape of new products that will allow our growing community to use what we do to create ideas and products of their own. In a way, the fact that we’re not sure where we will be exactly is what gets us so excited.
techspecs: Where do you believe the DIY movement is heading?
MJ: Bare Conductive’s founders have all been active in the DIY/Maker movement since 2007 and there have certainly been a lot of changes in the last 6 years, but I think it boils down to breadth and capability. The movement has developed breadth by moving beyond electronics and hacking to become about making, from knitting to rapid prototyping. Rapid manufacturing technology and the ease of communication has given everyone an ability to realise their ideas. When you combine this breadth and capability with the confidence and optimism of the Maker Movement you have a powerful force for determining the future.
techspecs: Over the last 5 years, what do you consider to be the greatest technological innovation?
MJ: Hmm….good question. At first I was trying to think of a single new technology, but actually I think it’s deeply related to your last question. The biggest shift in the last 5 years has come from the way in which innovation can be realised in a larger market. The combination of crowd funding and social media means that the path from idea to innovation and from project to product is shorter than ever. Platforms like Kickstarter are a great for way for individual Makers to create businesses from their ideas, but I think that we’ll look back and see that these platforms will have had a deeper impact. They are shifting the way that we value the role of the creator in the economy as well as the structure of business itself. Thanks to other innovations like rapid manufacturing and online payment systems, the upfront costs for manufacturing are dramatically lower than they were 5 years ago. Lower upfront costs, sharing mechanisms and crowdfunding mean that ideas get to market faster and make an impact sooner. We’ll look back and realise that the beginning of this decade was setting the stage for a major change in the way that the world works. This is a seriously exciting time!
The Bare Conductive Pen is available TODAY at your local RadioShack store.