If you’ve ever used a Velcro strip or marveled at the Shinkansen train in Japan, you have witnessed biomimicry in action. Bio (life) and mimicry (imitating) is the study of nature’s design principles, and it’s an idea whose time has come in terms of its ability to accelerate inspired, cleaner and more sustainable innovation. After all, for 3.8 billion years, nature has been the ultimate innovator, perfecting patterns, processes and systems with maximum efficiency and minimal waste. Only in nature is color structural, does waste equal food, and is carbon a building block. Over the last two decades, since biologist Janine Benyus published her first book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, in 1997, the science of biomimicry has slowly but surely intersected with the world of innovation, as smart product designers have asked the key question: How would Mother Nature design it?
The story of the Velcro strip – or more appropriately, the design of the ‘hook and loop’ closure that has been popularized by the company Velcro, is perhaps the best known and most intuitive of biomimicry examples. As the story goes, in 1948, a man named George de Mestral was walking his dog in the woods when a burr attached itself to his pant leg. As he tried to shake it loose, the burr and its tiny series of ‘hooks’ attached itself more firmly to his pants. In typical ‘a ha’ fashion, the idea struck him: wouldn’t a product designed like this be a great alternative to zippers?
Japan’s Shinkansen train is the modern evolution of the bullet train, and its designer, a bird watcher, was inspired by the Kingfisher in its innovation. Eiji Nakatsu imitated the Kingfisher’s beak in the shape of the train’s nose after observing the bird achieving a splashless water entry, moving rapidly and with incredibly low resistance. The adaptation of that design in the nose of the train means that not only is the train faster because of reduced drag, it is also more energy efficient and remarkably quieter than its predecessor. Image credit: Sam Doshi. 500 Series Shinkansen
How Biomimicry Works
If you’re new to the idea of biomimicry, especially when it comes to nature as a source of inspiration for commercial innovation, start with this video introduction to Janine Benyus.
“Biomimicry is a new discipline where today’s product designers are asking the question: ‘what in the natural world has already solved what I’m trying to solve?” says Janine. “Then they try to emulate what they’ve learned with designs and strategies that move us to being better adapted to life on Earth over the long haul. There are no better models than the species that have preceded us for millions of years.”
“We need to replace our old industrial chemistry book with nature’s chemistry book,” Janine continues. “we use every element in the periodic table, even the most toxic ones, in very inelegant ways. Nature’s chemistry has a different paradigm – low toxicity, low temperature, low pressure.”
When you’ve entered the world of being mentored by nature, you begin to learn about the fascinating ways in which organisms and even ecosystems communicate, and how inspiration can come from even the most obscure of places. Consider, for example, that biomimicry has influenced architecture and design in the emulation of termite mounds, and product design in the creation of shark skin swimsuits that were imagined to decrease drag and improve speed for Olympic swimmers. You’ll learn how butterfly wings have inspired solar cells, and how gull wings could improve airplane design. Biomimicry has even inspired futuristic design, as seen in the prototyping of an all-electric “air taxi” for the future by Lilium in Germany.
Biomimicry isn’t necessarily a new idea, though, as it’s rumored that Leonardo da Vinci may have used biomimetic thinking when he sketched ‘flying machines’ based on observations of birds and the principles of flight. What’s new is how far biomimicry has come since that time, and in particular in the last few years as the practice of biomimicry has gained a global following.
Biomimicry as a Catalyst for Innovation
Ray Anderson was an early adopter of the idea of biomimicry, so much so that he recruited Janine to his now legendary Eco Dream Team and introduced him to Interface’s product designers. A walk in the woods with textile designer David Oakey and the team from the Biomimicry Institute resulted in one of the company’s first big wins in the name of sustainability: a carpet tile product called Entropy that was designed to mimic the visual aesthetic of a wooded forest floor and all of its attendant, yet pleasing, chaos.
It’s a great example of what Janine often describes as the search for nature’s unifying patterns – that toolbox of patterns that can be found broadly across the majority of life on Earth. In addition to Velcro, bullet trains and carpet tile, the world of biomimicry has also manifested in really novel ways.
The Biomimicry Institute is the global nonprofit that has a goal of embedding biomimicry as a natural part of the design process. Led by Janine’s vision and a team of educators and innovators, the Institute envisions a world in which people view nature not as a warehouse of goods but as a storehouse of knowledge and inspiration for sustainable solutions. Founded in 2006, the Institute first worked to introduce biomimicry into K-12 education and curricula through programs at zoos, museums and aquariums. In 2008, AskNature debuted - a database created by the Biomimicry Institute that catalogs solutions found in nature based on the design principle you are looking to emulate. A decade later, smart product designers know that a query there might yield the best research for the next million-dollar idea. Ever the educators, the Institute provides lesson plans, classroom exercises and educator training courses in the resources section of AskNature.org so that both teachers and students can bring biomimicry into the classroom one project at a time. Along the way, Biomimicry 3.8 emerged as a for-profit consultancy with a goal to bring biologists to every enterprise – from start-ups to Fortune 500s.
Today the Institute is a robust, global innovation pipeline focused on commercialization of biomimetic solutions to some of the world’s most entrenched problems, including climate change. A Youth Design Challenge and Global Design Challenge have mobilized tens of thousands of practitioners with the support of the Global Biomimicry Network, and the best and brightest ideas from the Global Design Challenge can progress to the Biomimicry Launchpad -- an incubator that accelerates the development and commercialization of biomimicry startup innovations and helps support the next generation of sustainability entrepreneurs. Finally, more advanced biomimicry startups are invited each year to compete for the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize, named for Ray Anderson and underwritten by his namesake Foundation. We think of it like a Shark Tank for nature-inspired design.
The Ray of Hope Prize competition provides select biomimicry startups (from the Launchpad and otherwise) the opportunity to participate in high-level pitch and biomimicry training, showcase their work to industry leaders, and compete for a $100,000 equity-free prize. Teams who participate in the Ray of Hope Prize receive access to a community of biomimicry designers and entrepreneurs, direct contact with industry leaders, access to potential investors and biomimicry training to refine product and enhance storytelling.
The Ray of Hope prize is open to any startup with a nature-inspired product, service, or technology with inherent social or environmental benefits. The Prize is particularly appropriate for solutions that address carbon sequestration, climate change adaptation or mitigation, critical sustainability challenges, or any of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
First awarded in 2016, the Ray of Hope prize has grown in breadth and depth, each year attracting teams with increasingly more sophisticated concepts who are solving bigger problems.
In 2016, the first prize recipients were a team from the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile, who designed a new way of restoring soil quality that emulates the way hardy “nurse” plants establish themselves in degraded soils and pave the way for new plant species to grow. Originally named BioNurse, the LifePatch returns vitality to the soil by improving conditions for seedlings and exposing them to a mix of nutrients, is fabricated with natural fibers, and biodegrades after one season. By mimicking biological principles, the design innovation provides a way to grow and protect new plants and ensure that the soil can be regenerated to feed our world’s growing population. The team of judges from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation and the biomimicry community also awarded $20,000 to the Oasis Aquaponic System (2nd Place), $15,000 to the Jube team (3rd Place), and $10,000 each to the four other finalist teams in 2016.
In 2017, the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize was awarded to NexLoop, who design biomimetic products and systems to collect and integrate in situ atmospheric water sources into sustainable and affordable urban food production. Their AquaWeb design is a modular, scalable building envelope system for food production applications, such as greenhouses, indoor vertical farms and container farms. “NexLoop was an impressive team across the board,” said John A. Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, when he presented the prize. “They have a deep understanding of how biomimicry aids in the design process, and their plans for hyper-local water capture and storage in urban settings could play a crucial role in scaling local, sustainable agriculture.” Each aspect of AquaWeb’s design was inspired by living systems, including how cribellate orb weaver spider webs collect fog from the air, how drought-tolerant plants like the crystalline ice plant store water and how mycorrhizal fungi like the Jersey cow mushroom distribute water. The team also looked to the dwarf honey bee’s hexagonal nest structure for AquaWeb’s efficient and modular design. Since receiving the Ray of Hope Prize, NexLoop has received the Innovator of the Year prize from Ag Tech X, and was recognized as a 2018 Make It in Brooklyn Innovation Award winner.
In 2018, a team from Brazil was inspired by winged seeds, bromeliads, and forest leaf litter to offer a smarter, cheaper and faster approach for large-scale forest restoration. The Nucleário Planting System received the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize for their promise to eliminate the need for irrigation, herbicides, and pesticides. “This simple but impactful biomimicry-inspired innovation has the potential to transform reforestation efforts and help reverse global warming,” said John A. Lanier, upon awarding the prize. “The six judges were impressed with all of the teams, but Nucleário stood out because they had a clear understanding of the path to commercialization.” The team from Nucleário, (Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli, Pedro Rutman Pagnoncelli, and Bruno Ferrari) was featured in stories on NBC and BBC for their win. Nucleário is designed to be used in remote areas of the Atlantic rainforest, and it functions like leaf litter, preventing soil leaching and increasing soil moisture levels and protecting seedlings from leafcutter ants and invasive grasses. It also mimics how bromeliads collect water from rain and dew to provide a microclimate that attracts biodiversity. By reducing maintenance costs and helping improve seedling survival rates, Nucleário gets more trees in the ground in less time.
In 2019, a team from Boston won the Ray of Hope Prize for Watchtower Robotics -- a next-generation, flexible robot that can inspect water pipes and locate leaks for utilities to easily fix. Mimicking a squid, the Watchtower robot leaves behind a beacon at every leak it finds in an underground water pipe, which allows maintenance crews to locate it with wireless scanners from above ground, pinpoint the location of the leaks, and know where to dig and fix them. The same year, Watchtower also won the global Urban Water Challenge from Imagine H20. They will use the funding from that prize to map water pipe networks in 3D and detect leaks with its small-scale robots in Da Nang, Vietnam.
Aruga Technologies took second place in 2019, taking home a $25,000 prize (sponsored by an anonymous donor) for its vascular implant technology. Based in Pittsburgh, Aruga identified a pattern in nature: the function of dynamic surface wrinkles to keep surfaces clean. Dynamic wrinkling helps keep dolphin skin from becoming fouled with barnacles and algae, for example, and also keeps human lungs and blood vessels free from deposits. Applying this idea to vascular grafts has the potential to not only save on healthcare costs and achieve better patient outcomes, but also has sustainability wins due to decreased needs for replacement grafts and days spent in Intensive Care Units. Although the company's market entry point is the surgical graft market, this technology has the potential for anti-fouling applications in aquaculture, roofing and industrial process hosing. Aruga is currently raising a $1.5 million seed round.
In 2020, the Ray of Hope Prize was awarded to ECOncrete Tech LTD., a science-based company that develops high performance, environmentally-sensitive concrete products for coastal and marine infrastructure projects. ECOncrete offers products that facilitate the growth and regeneration of local marine species and strengthen structures over time through a process known as bioprotection. Inspired by beach rock formations, coral polyps, oyster shells, mangrove roots, and other marine habitats and life forms, ECOncrete embodies biomimicry’s design intention: to learn from and mimic forms and processes found in nature to create regenerative solutions.
Cypris Materials, the second place winner in 2020, is a Berkeley, California-based company that has developed a paint that reflects wavelengths of light to produce color, instead of utilizing toxic pigments and dyes. Known as structural color, and found throughout nature (most notably on the wings of morpho butterflies), the tunable coating Cypris invented uses biomimicry principles and can be applied directly to surfaces as a paint. It reflects wavelengths throughout the UV, visible, and infrared spectrums. The technology improves building and automobile energy efficiency by reflecting UV, visible, and infrared light, while also expanding the available color palette and eliminating toxic pigments and colorants.
What’s Next for Biomimicry and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation?
In a 2019 interview at the GreenBiz Circularity conference, John Lanier said: "[The Foundation is] exploring what is next for the world of sustainable business, looking ahead not just to creating prototypical companies of the 21st century, but what it would take to create a prototypical economy of the 21st century.” Indeed, it’s an idea whose time has come!