The Biomimicry Symposium held October 1-2 in San Diego brought together engineers, designers, scientists and others turning to nature as a source of inspiration. For cities, businesses, and entrepreneurs looking for the next great thing, the growing field of biomimicry is becoming a recognized research and development approach that can benefit both businesses and the natural world.
There are an estimated 30 million species on earth, of which about 1.8 million have been described. Each of these species is a rich resource, a lesson in the genius of nature’s engineering and design solutions. The solutions that living things have evolved include strategies for saving water, protecting against impact, insulating against heat or cold, providing fire resistance, and almost any other challenge you can imagine. These challenges are often surprisingly similar to the challenges facing human product designers and engineers. While humans have been developing industrial solutions for a few hundred years though, the plants and animals we share the world with are the result of billions of years of problem solving to arrive at unique and often far better solutions than we have. It should be no surprise that nature is so good at providing elegant and efficient solutions, while we are still catching up.
By studying the form of living things, how they work, and the processes they use, we can adapt the solutions they have evolved for innovations like faster trains, more efficient cars, cleaner paints, and stronger ceramics. A wide range of businesses are already engaged in the application of biomimicry, often inspired by the work of pioneers like Janine Benyus and Jay Harman who spoke at the meeting about the current state of the field and where it’s headed.
While the field has encountered skepticism from the corporate world over the years, a growing list of success stories are changing this. Swimsuits modeled after shark skin worked so well in the Chinese Olympics that they have been claimed to provide an unfair advantage. Paint from StoCorp modeled after the lotus leaf keeps surfaces clean like these leaves, and has now been applied to hundreds of millions of square feet. Biomimicry may be reaching the tipping point where it goes from a curiosity with pretty pictures to a standard approach to innovation. Thousands of people are working with engineers and designers to develop biomimicry-based innovations, with universities around the world joining in the effort as well.
For me, biomimicry has it all. As a biologist, I love the insights it provides into the living world, and the respect and care for living things it inspires. As someone working in the green business world, I’m excited by the huge repository of innovative solutions that nature provides for cleaner, greener, and better ways of doing business.
San Diego is hoping to position itself as a hub for Biomimicry-related enterprises in San Diego, stimulating the growth of local businesses and jobs. As the home of the San Diego Zoo, the city has a head start. The San Diego Zoo (along with the Wild Animal Park) is a world famous tourist destination, but their collection of over 5000 species has far greater value than this. The organisms at the zoo are also inspiring the next generation of biomimicry-based businesses.
In a tour of the Zoo featured as part of the Symposium, staff members talked about the animals they work with every day, and how these inspire new innovations. The same mechanisms that allow geckos to climb vertically on glass are being studied to design new types of adhesive materials. Hippos produce a secretion called "blood sweat" that isn’t blood or sweat, but does block UV radiation and bacteria, protecting hippos against both the sun and infection. Flamingo bills can inspire new types of more efficient filtration devices. By working with these animals daily, and studying their in and outs, zoo staff are ambassadors to the living world for business innovators.
San Diego also has world class research institutions that can help a biomimicry hub develop, and strong biotech and high-tech communities that provide a ready supply of entrepreneurs eager for new opportunities. The San Diego city government sponsored the event to help create future prosperity. "For entrepreneurs, there’s money to be made in this," said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders at the Symposium, and the city’s program manager for their cleantech initiative, Jacques Chirazi, noted several ways that government can help biomimicry-based businesses grow.
One of the key speakers at the event was Janine Benyus, author of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature and co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute non-profit and the Biomimicry Guild consultancy. Benyus was one of the first to really appreciate the value of solutions from the natural world. Today her years of work are paying off, big time. "There’s a shift in science and design from learning about nature to learning from nature," said Benyus. When they study the solutions that industry has developed (measured in patents) compared to the solutions that nature has developed, there is only 12% overlap where nature and industry have used similar strategies. "That means that 88% of the time we are surprised," said Benyus.
Qualcomm, a telecomm company based in San Diego, has developed a novel display for phones called mirasol that produces images in the same way that butterfly wings produce color, by reflecting light rather than producing light like current LCD screens. As a result mirasol displays work much better in direct sunlight, and mirasol displays also consume much less power. "Doing business nature’s way is just good business," said Cheryl Goodman, director marketing of Qualcomm.
Another San Diego business using biomimicry is Biomatrica, providing a better way to store biological materials. Typically drug companies, universities, and others storing biological materials like DNA, RNA, and cells store them in power-hungry freezers held at -80C. Hundreds of these freezers line the halls of universities, sucking up power, costing money, and taking up space. To find an alternative, scientists at Biomatrica studied tiny animals called tardigrades, or water bears, that can survive for a decade with practically all of the water removed from their body. Studying how these creatures accomplish this feat, Biomatrica found they could produce their own version that allows biological samples to be dried and stored at room temperature rather than -80C, avoiding the need for so many freezers. The universities and businesses using Biomatrica’s products are saving money on energy, and reducing their carbon footprint, a big component of sustainability efforts everywhere.
Businesses around the world are developing biomimicry-based products. The cement industry accounts for 6-8% of global carbon dioxide production. To find a better way to make cement, Calera Corporation (www.calera.com) studied how corals build reefs, and is developing coral-inspired cement that takes carbon out of the air rather than into it. QinetiQ is studying the Namib desert beetle to find new ways to gather water out of air. Baleen Filters is producing filtration systems for water based on the same methods that whales use. Columbia Forest Products is making PureBond plywood products that are formaldehyde free, using a soy-based adhesive that works in the same way that mussels attach themselves on rocks with waterproof adhesive. The list goes on and on.
The president and CEO of Pax Scientific, Jay Herman spoke at the Biomimicry Symposium about a pattern that he kept finding over and over again in nature, the spiral. It’s in seashells, hurricanes, draining bath water, and spiral galaxies. Harman isn’t the first to note this recurring pattern; cultures back to the dawn of civilization have used the spiral as a symbol of fertility and creation. There’s a reason why the spiral is so ubiquitous in nature. "This shape is the path of least resistance," says Harman. "To use less energy, follow this path." The industrial applications of this observation are enormous, including fans in computers, propeller blades, water pumps, motors, and appliances that use nature’s geometry to be more efficient.
"Nature sips energy, while humans guzzle it," said Harman. As one example, he talked about water storage tanks used for municipal water supplies. Millions of gallons are stored in large tanks sitting in the sun, and treated with chlorine to reduce algal growth. Mixing can reduce growth, but takes a great deal of energy. Installing one of his small simple mixing blades shaped like a vortex several inches in length can mix these tanks, saving 80% of the energy and 85% of the chemicals that were previously used.
Harman also described some of the challenges that the next generation of biomimicry entrepreneurs will face. As an innovative field biomimicry needs patient capital, and would benefit from new sources of seed funding, Harman suggested. He also recommends having a clear focus for product development, and going after niche markets with whole products rather than just offering technologies or patents to license as sub-components. Finally, he recommends networking with fellow biomimics.
What’s next for Biomimicry? The answer could be important for all of us.
"We are moving from nature as model to nature as measure, setting the bar for success," said Benyus. By looking at ecosystems, we can see how they build soil, store water, and store carbon, and architects, designers and others can work to do as well as nature, if not better. The Biomimicry Guild and HOK, one of the world’s largest architectural firms, are working together to move beyond developing individual biomimicry-based products. They are working to include biomimicry in the design of buildings, communities and even cities, producing whole systems working at the same high standards as nature.
How can you look into biomimicry yourself? If you have a business and are looking for an innovative solution to a challenge you face, investigate asknature.org, a database of nature’s solutions. For more help, talk to the biomimics at the Biomimicry Guild, the biologists at the design table.
With so many successes coming so quickly, biomimicry seems sure to attract much more attention in the years ahead. San Diego will have competition for its role as a center of the business of biomimicry, but that’s okay. The more cities and businesses that pursue strategies like this, the more that we all win with a stronger economy and a cleaner environment.
For more info about the biomimicry program at the zoo: www.sandiegozoo.com/biomimicry
Glenn Croston is the founder of StartingUpGreen.com, helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to start and grow greener businesses, and the author of "75 Green Businesses You Can Start to Make Money and Make a Difference", and "Starting Green" (Entrepreneur Press, 2009).