Innovation Modeled from Nature
By Kelly Ryan
In today’s world, technological innovations are rapidly taking place with no intention of slowing down. The innovation process typically consists of companies either reformulating their existing products for improvement or emulating a competitor’s product. While this has proved effective to date, an increasingly prominent method, termed bioinspired innovation, offers a new opportunity for these companies to create products and processes inspired by the proven designs of nature. While there are different forms of bioinspired innovation (biomimicry, bioutilization, etc.), they all look to nature’s processes as inspiration. The organisms of the natural world have consistently faced challenges throughout Earth’s 3.8 billion year lifespan. In order to stick around and adapt to these challenges, organisms are required to innovate—this makes them the experts, not us. Companies employing bioinspired innovation study these natural processes attentively with the intent of replicating them into a new and innovative product or process.
A Bioinspired Economy
Nature can complete many of the everyday processes humans implement in about half the time with much less infrastructure. By analyzing natural processes, companies can find ways to reduce the technology and cost associated with product development, a typical universal business goal. In addition, bioinspired innovation can often bridge the gap between these two competing interests (business and the environment).
With its widespread benefits, bioinspired innovation shows great potential to have a significant impact on the US economy. A paper produced by Terrapin with the Fermanian Business and Economic Institute (FBEI) claims that bioinspired innovation could account for approximately $425 billion dollars of U.S GDP by 2030. As seen above, the largest industry contributions are expected to come from building construction, chemical manufacturing, and power generation, distribution, and storage. It appears there will also be significant growth within the energy, transportation, oil and gas, and utility industries. Along with economic performance improving, bioinspired innovation will also increase employment within these sectors.
While this may seem like multiple decades or so away, there has already been significant growth in bioinspired innovation since the early 2000’s. The Da Vinci Index 2.0, created by FBEI, measures activity in bioinspired innovation, biomimicry, and biomimetics. It also analyzes the number of U.S patents issued, scholarly articles published, and grants awarded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Taking these aspects, the index offers insight into specific technologies being developed across various sectors and where bioinspired innovation is taking place throughout the world.
Examples of many bioinspired products can be seen on Terrapin’s “Market Readiness of Select Bioinspired Technologies” infographic. This graphic maps out technologies ranging from early concepts to fully commercialized products. It also demonstrates just how steadily bioinspired innovation is increasing with products from all different sectors being developed and researched.
Photo Credit: Terrapin
Bioinspired Product: Ecovative Mushroom Materials
Ecovative, a biomaterials production company, combines mycelium, the vegetative portion of a fungus, with agricultural byproducts to create environmentally friendly, compostable mushroom materials. An alternative to plastic and other petroleum-based products, mushroom materials are made by introducing mycelium to this byproduct mixture. Through its digestion process, strong white fibers are formed within the mixture. The product is then broken up once more and placed into a tool which allows the mycelium to grow around the particles, forming a solid, compact structure. Ecovative’s Mushroom Materials are made into various decorative tiles, packaging materials, and even coffee tables and desks. They are safe, healthy, and meet consumer product needs while achieving sustainable goals.
Bioinspired Product in Development: Mussel Inspired Adhesive
Researchers at the chemical company SyntheZyme are developing a water-resistant adhesive inspired by Blue Mussels. Mussels produce a biodegradable, waterproof adhesive that can strongly attach to almost any surface. Many other manufactured adhesives are not near as versatile and contain toxic compounds. The adhesive is made of proteins with sticky chemical ends that crosslink biopolymers into a strong matrix, similar to that found in the mussel adhesive. With the adhesive market projected to reach $43 billion by the year 2020, and the demand increasing for non-toxic adhesives, products like this could have a huge impact on the market.
While bioinspired innovative products and processes continue to grow, the concept still has a long road ahead before it fully transforms the innovation process. The vast population is still not versed in looking to nature for inspiration and to solve human challenges. Here at Verdical Group, we are proud proponents of all forms of bioinspired innovation. As hosts of the Biomimicry Conference in 2016, we hope to educate other sectors to see the benefits of this process and take steps towards investing in it.