How We Built Bare Conductive
How vision, passion and paint propelled us to global leadership and partnerships with the world’s largest companies
Bare Conductive sold its first jar of electrically conductive paint in September of 2011. But we started two years before that, as a student project at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College in London. July 31 was our tenth anniversary. Given this significant milestone, I thought it would be appropriate to indulge in a bit of storytelling. Specifically, I want to tell the story of how we went from a student project to a maker movement icon to a partner of the largest and most dynamic companies on the planet.
I moved from the US to study at the Industrial Design Engineering dual master’s program at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London. The course promised to deliver a uniquely diverse intake of technical and creative students who were serious about working their ass off for two years. It was fantastic. Those two years changed my life in many ways, but most significantly, I met Isabel Lizardi, Bibi Nelson, and Becky Pilditch. They were first my partners in a project and soon my co-founders in a business.
Creating a vision: Looking at electronics in a new way
As students, Isabel, Bibi, Becky, and I almost immediately focused on three trends: materials innovation, printed electronics, and the promise of the smart home and wearable revolution. In retrospect, I can see that we were successful at combining these areas into a vision of minimal electronic devices that could be placed intimately around the body or seamlessly in the environment. A vision that still drives us today.
But there was a catch. The prototyping materials available threatened to constrain our vision. We wanted to create a new category of devices that could seamlessly integrate into any material or environment. But early experiments with copper tape and wires didn’t achieve what we wanted. We couldn’t deliver our most radical ideas without also rethinking the materials that we used for prototyping. It didn’t take long to realize that what we needed was conductive ink.
A quick search on Amazon today reveals that there are many conductive inks, paints, and pastes available for purchase. But this wasn’t true in 2009. We couldn’t get a hold of a single gram. Not from an academic laboratory or a global player like DuPont, Henkel, or 3M. Utterly ignorant of the complexity of the task in front of us, we decided to formulate our own conductive ink.
Our drive to rapidly prototype our ideas gave us three critical criteria for our new material. First, it had to be easy to apply on a wide variety of substrates, like acrylic or water-based paint. Second, it needed to be compatible with screen printing. Third, it had to be air drying and safe for a novice user to handle.
We began experimenting with conductors, binders, and plasticizers making over 100 material formulations before our graduate show. We were prolific and unquestionably lucky. We also gained an invaluable perspective on conductive inks and the printed electronics industry, which still serves us today.
By our graduation show, we had created a few litres of a prototype material that could be applied like paint and was impressively conductive while dry. But what we didn’t appreciate was that we had created a highly unique formulation, tuned perfectly for prototyping and experimentation. This ease of use would form the foundation for a global community of users.
After winning an Innovate UK grant competition, we transformed our prototype into a product. With an insane amount of work, the four of us went from a jar of paint mixed in my flat to full-scale supply chain with production and fulfilment in only nine months.
Building a community: From a student project to number 1 out of 34.1M results
In September 2011 the first jar of Electric Paint was on sale. We went to Maker Faire New York and met thousands of people who had inspirational ideas and with product in their hands, could now act on them. We started making connections to other companies that would propel our growth like Arduino, Adafruit, Make, and SparkFun.
We were overwhelmed with a positive response from the maker community. We were shipping 50ml jars of Electric Paint worldwide while responding to thousands of inquiries from enthusiastic engineers, designers, and artists. They were actively helping us explore the potential of Electric Paint. It was our job to equip them with technology and help propel their ideas. Like our vision for a new type of electronics, our drive to empower a community remains a core driver of our business. Since the launch of the first jar, we’ve sold over 400,000 products, created 23 different kits and seven pieces of hardware.
The diversification of our products was intentional and strategic. We realized that building our business on Electric Paint alone would drive us towards commoditization. We would end up competing with global giants like DuPont, Henkel, and 3M, and our materials science resources and supply chain could never match theirs. But we saw an opportunity that others didn’t. There was a clear differentiation in the market between materials manufacturers and electronics manufacturers. If we could build a technology stack above conductive inks, we could own a unique place in the market.
Our early interest in printed electronics had revealed a siloed industry. As a consequence, we saw that no one was in a position to take advantage of the unique capabilities of conductive paint when combined with contemporary electronic hardware. To this day, the scaled applications for conductive paint lie in the realm of analogue electronics. We recognized that if we were to build a technology stack of materials, hardware, and software that we could differentiate ourselves and fight commoditization.
We chose to focus on impedance sensing as it took the best advantage of the unique properties of printed conductors, but more on that later. We first demonstrated this shift with the launch of our Touch Board on Kickstarter in late 2013. We overfunded by 820%, and backers used our robust Arduino-compatible capacitive touch platform to make things we never imagined.
But while working on building a technology stack, we identified another critical shift in the business. Google had taken notice of the strength of our community. We were beginning to rank highly for generic search terms like “conductive ink” and “conductive paint.” Without knowing it, we had created our most powerful tool yet, a first-place page ranking for a billion-dollar industry. With our technology stack and Google-endorsed market legitimacy in hand, we were ready to take the business into its third stage.
In early 2017, while sales of our paint, hardware, and kits were growing, emails started trickling in from industry. Organizing this inbound interest suddenly revealed that we had placed ourselves inside of a valuable technology assessment workflow. For example, an engineer has an idea, googles “conductive ink” and finds us first. They click on the site and find easy-to-access information and an approachable brand. They can buy our technology straight from the shop and get it the next day. No forms, logistics, or salespeople to stand in the way of prototyping.
We conscientiously built the brand and site to be easy to access, because as engineers and designers, that’s how we would want it. We know that every engineer wants to prototype, iterate, and play on their own time. Why not make it easy for them?
Launching a rocket ship: Partnering with global giants
Our high-ranking position on Google and our growing industry relationships demonstrated that our focus on building a technology stack on top of conductive inks was visionary. There was an increasing interest in smart surfaces and distributed sensing. We combed through thousands of emails, generating a list of industries, use cases, and potential partners, and we made a plan. We recognized that what we were creating was an enabling technology that could transform any surface or substrate into a low-cost, high-resolution sensor.
We re-aimed the business, focusing our consumer products as easy-to-use development kits that would speak more directly to the interest from industry without alienating our maker audience. We partnered with world-class distributors like RS Components and Arrow Electronics to onboard our products and community. We convinced them to look at their own businesses differently. Arrow had never even stocked a liquid product before our Electric Paint.
We got serious about IP, developing our stack in detail, focusing on printing, connector technologies, hardware design, firmware, and software. We made a list of our ideal go-to-market partners within specific use-cases, approached them, and I’m happy to say that we’re finding excellent traction.
We’re working on hygiene devices with Rentokil Initial. We’re building world-beating smart home products with IKEA. And we’re up to exciting things with DuPont. By next year, we’ll be able to announce partners in the automotive, healthcare, wearables, and insurance spaces too. We’re currently conducting ambitious pilots and development projects with partners around the world.
In 2020 the first of these projects will become a product, and you’ll be able to see a “powered by Bare Conductive” badge on the bottom. But you’ll also see this same technology presented back to our community, as a tool for prototyping the next killer app. We have evolved from four students mixing paint in a flat in North London to a company reinventing whole categories of devices with the world’s most successful companies.
It hasn’t been a straight line from a student project to a wildly successful business. But I’m incredibly proud of the way that we’ve nurtured our vision and stuck to our principles. In doing so, we’ve built a fantastic team, attracted forward-thinking investors, and partnered with world-beating companies. I can’t imagine a better foundation for the next ten years.