The Booming Business Of Biomimicry

Economists are trying to quantify both the spread of the 15-year-old biomimicry industry and its economic effects, and the results are eye-opening.

The Booming Business Of Biomimicry

Introduced in 2010, the Da Vinci Index is an attempt to quantify the impact of biomimicry in the U.S. Compiled by Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Fermanian Business & Economic Institute in San Diego, the Da Vinci Index measures the use of terms unique to biomimimetic thinking in scientific publications, patents, and grants (PDF).


The most recent update of the Da Vinci index, released in the third quarter of 2011, shows an eleven-fold increase in the incidence of biomimicry in the research pipeline since 2000, the baseline year of the index.

One caveat: The methodology used to build the Da Vinci index can’t distinguish between the spread of terms related to biomimicry and the spread of biomimetic thinking itself. This isn’t entirely a bad thing–even though humans have always looked to nature for inspiration, the term “biomimicry” carries with it dimensions of sustainable thinking that might otherwise be absent from the innovations to which it’s being attached.

That’s embodied by the index itself, which characterizes biomimetic thinking as being about higher efficiency, lower costs, and “optimizing, not maximixing.” That last bit is key–natural systems cope with resource limitations all the time, and there’s more evidence than ever that the explosive fossil-fueled growth of the 20th century has already given way to a 21st century characterized by gains in productivity achieved primarily through increased efficiency, not more resource use.

This means the Da Vinci index is in a way a measurement of research into sustainability practices. As the initial report on the index put it, “…by increasing efficiency and reducing costs, solutions inspired by nature can allow us to both raise standards of living and preserve the environment.”

This report was commissioned by the San Diego Zoo, which has already created a new revenue stream by marketing its expertise in biomimicry to corporations. The Zoo is also actively involved in the establishment of an “innovation hub” that could lead to biomimicry-focused research.

These efforts to build a consortium of biomimicry-focused businesses and research institutions mean that this report is probably on the sunny side of estimates of the potential economic impact of biomimicry. That said, here are the numbers its authors propose:


By 2025, biomimicry could represent: $300 billion annually of U.S. GDP (2010 dollars), $50 billion value in terms of resources conserved and CO2 not emitted, and 1.6 million jobs. Globally, the report projects that biomimicry could account for $1 trillion in GDP by 2025. That’s as big as the entire U.S. oil and gas industry, which employs 9 million Americans.

Those benefits won’t be evenly distributed across all industries. And the ones that fare best are a measure of the extent to which some fields have been the most avid adopters of biomimetic processes.

Chemical manufacturing might seem like a surprise leader, but it shouldn’t be. Responding as much to the wildly fluctuating costs of its primary feedstock (oil) as much as anything else, engineers have developed methods for “green” chemistry at a rapid clip. Novozymes, for example, manufactures the active ingredients in detergent from sugar, in gigantic fermentation vats.

Waste management is an obvious place for biomimicry to creep in, considering that waste management is in some respects the whole of what nature does. From recycling and composting to recovery of landfill gas, it’s an industry where there’s an enormous amount of low-hanging fruit.

At the bottom of this index are the extractive and transportation industries. Precisely because we have yet to fundamentally rethink how we use fossil fuels or transport ourselves and our goods, these are the industries with the most to gain from biomimicry. It could also be argued that these are the activities that are central to the difference between humans and all the life that preceded us on earth, which had to suffice on the calories it could extract from its immediate environment, rather than the deep past, in the form of fossil fuels.

[Image: Flickr user Z33]

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