Nature Inspired Innovation
What is nature inspired innovation? You may have heard the terms “biomimetics” or “biomimicry”? Biomimicry or biomimetics is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems. The term biomimicry and biomimetics come from the Greek words bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate.
This is not a new discipline. For thousands of years our ancestors have looked to nature for inspiration. The Chinese are thought to have tried to make artificial silk, some 3,000 years ago and Leonardo da Vinci (born 1452 – died 1519) studied the flight of birds and proposed designs of flying machines.
Otto Schmitt, an American academic and inventor, coined the phrase biomimetics to describe the transfer of ideas from biology to technology.
The term biomimicry is thought to have appeared in the early 1980’s and was popularised by scientist and author Janine Benyus on her 1997 book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”. Janine went on to co-found the Biomimicry Institute in 2006. You can find out more about Janine and the Institute on the Biomimicy Institute website.
Janine Benyus is a renowned speaker on the topic and you’ll find lots of her talks on-line. The talk we’ve chosen is from 2015, but very relevant for today & worth the 20 minutes or so to watch
Most people will have seen or used nature inspired inventions. For example, Velcro – inspired by burdock burrs – a tiny seed covered in hundreds of microscopic ‘hooks’ that catch onto the natural ‘loops’ that cover fur, clothing and hair.
In the late ’90s, Japanese engineers modelled the Shinkansen bullet train after Kingfisher birds to solve one of their biggest problems – tunnel sonic booms. This video explains the issues the engineers faced & what aspects of nature inspired the design to counter these problems.
A growing number of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs are motivated by the pressing environmental and social challenges of today and looking to nature for inspiration for solutions. We’re certainly seeing more technologies that have a foundation in nature. Here are some young companies we’ve come across recently:
Unanimous AI is a biomimicry startup, you may have heard of. It has developed an AI technology platform and is known for predicting Oscar winners & Donald Trump’s 100-day approval rating. The Unanimous AI-powered collaboration platform “Swarm AI” is based on how birds, fish and bees make decisions together in a swarm. Taken individually, these creatures aren’t renowned for their brainpower. But when they come together in flocks, schools and swarms, a collective intelligence emerges that is greater than just the sum of its parts. The Swarm AI platform can be used to amplify the wisdom of any online team or group, quickly enabling more accurate forecasts, estimations, insights and evaluations.
Xampla is a University of Cambridge spin-out that is developing plant protein materials for commercial applications. The Xampla next generation, bio-based material performs like synthetic polymers, but decomposes naturally and fully, without harming the environment. The Xampla material is inspired by the spider:
The Biomimicry Institute runs an annual competition, the Ray of Hope Prize, a transformational program designed to help startups cross a critical threshold in scaling their sustainable solutions. The finalists for the 2021 competition have recently been announced and we’ve picked out a couple to highlight the breadth of nature based solutions.
Biohm is a bio-based building materials company that makes insulation made from mycelium (the “root” structure of mushrooms) and a 100% natural sheet material called ORB (organic refuse bio-compound) made out of biowaste and a plant-based binder. Their building materials are more affordable and outperform current products on the market. By embracing circular design and the systemic nutrient cycling found in nature, Biohm is leading innovation in the construction industry to create a more sustainable built environment.
New Iridium has created a suite of high-performance organic chemicals that enable photocatalysis, or light-driven chemistry, eliminating the need for heavy metals or heat as catalysts. Their technology dramatically reduces the energy and time required for a wide variety of chemical reactions, improving efficiencies in both product development and manufacturing. Products are currently being used by pharmaceutical and chemical companies. New Iridium is working toward developing a platform that mimics photosynthesis by using light energy to convert water and CO2 into chemical energy.
You can find information on all the 2021 finalists on the Biomimicry Institute website.