Folding plug: A student idea that worked

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Media captionRory Cellan-Jones sees how the folding plug works

How often have you seen a new product and immediately thought "wow - why didn't I think of that?" That's what happened to me one evening in the summer of 2009 when I went to the graduate show at the Royal College of Art (RCA). I came across a Korean postgraduate student displaying something so simple yet so clever that I immediately reached for my phone and recorded what I saw.

The folding three pin plug displayed at the RCA's Innovation Night by Min-Kyu Choi went on to win all sorts of prizes, notably the 2010 Design of The Year award. But turning it into a product that could go on sale proved quite a challenge.

Now after a lot of work and plenty of false starts, British consumers are about to get their hands on the folding plug - or at least something similar. What has emerged, after a lot of tinkering with the original design, is actually a folding USB adapter to power a smartphone or similar device. This week I met Min again, along with his business partner, to discuss the path from sketches in a design student's notebook to a product.

The first and most sensible thing Min did after the show was to team up with Matthew Judkins, an MBA student at neighbouring Imperial College with previous experience of design-led start-ups.

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Image caption Min-Kyu Choi

Matthew took on the job of finding investors, employing marketing expertise and a PR agency, and generally making sure the business side of things was sorted out. Meanwhile, Min set about refining his design.

Even before the prototype went on display at the Royal College, he had taken the advice of his tutor and applied for a patent. That was fairly cheap, but as time went on the cost of the process to protect the design around the world mounted higher and higher, one reason why support from external investors was soon needed.

The USB adapter that is about to go on sale via Matthew and Min's company's website and in the Design Museum may only appeal to a niche audience. It is beautifully packaged - in a very Apple kind of way - and at £25 relatively expensive.

It may serve then as just a clever piece of marketing for a product with wider appeal, a power cord with a foldaway plug promised for later this year.

So what lessons can we draw from Min and Matthew's experience about turning innovative ideas from UK universities into successful products?

Mathew Judkins thinks the environment is improving: "There is a void in this country between great design and then commercialisation," he says. "But especially of late, there is a great enthusiasm to start new ventures."

Min says his native South Korea is a better place to manufacture - that is where their product is made - but the UK is a better place to start a business, with a friendly environment for start-ups, and easy access to global markets.

Once the various plug products are launched, the duo will think about other projects, perhaps turning their business into an incubator for other young designers. "We'd love to make it a home for growing innovation," says Mathew Judkins. "We've spent a lot of time over the last two years building an infrastructure - it's hugely expensive but once that's in place you can use it again."

The foldaway plug is not going to change the world. But the very fact that it has made its way from a student show to a saleable product shows that maybe Britain can be a place to get great ideas off the ground.