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Natural Selection June.2006

Natural Selection June.2006



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Published by Celeste LeCompte

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Published by: Celeste LeCompte on Oct 11, 2008
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JUNE 2006
Sustainable IndustriesJournal
t’s redwing blackbird season in Montana,and Janine Benyus is weeding herflowerbeds. In the background, showymale birds are courting returning femaleswith their distinctive, plaintive trill. Overthe phone line, the bird calls sound like the puls-ing of insects on a hot summer’s evening.“It’s like playing pool,” Benyus is saying.“Really good pool players have a good leave. Theyreally care about where they’re leaving the cue ballfor the next player. Natural systems have donethat too.”The lesson that she’s trying to explain has todo with waste. The business community, she says,has to learn to have a good “leave” on the table atthe end of the day. In healthy ecosystems, “youdon’t see a lot of nutrients leaking away,” Benyussays. Waste products in one part of the system arebrought back in at another point in the system,creating relationships between organisms.Industry is at a point where it can no longerafford to let the knowledge and resources of thenatural world leak away, says Benyus. In her 1997book, “Biomimicry: Innovation inspired bynature,” Benyus detailed an emerging methodolo-gy of borrowing from biology’s blueprints. Theallure of biomimicry shimmers in the book’spages, tantalizing readers with promises of afuture in which abundant energy is provided by
‘Biomimicry’ pioneerJanine Benyus showsbusiness that waste is aterrible thing to mind
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Sustainable IndustriesJournal
JUNE 2006
solar cells that gather and store energy as effi-ciently as leaves; of cities filled with cleverlycurved buildings constructed of lighter, stronger,and more flexible bone-like materials; and of com-puters that learn processing power from ourhuman brains.Such technologies haven’t burst onto the mar-ketplace, radically transforming our everyday livesin the decade that has passed since the book’spublication. Biomimics are still a fledglingspecies, testing their wings in university laborato-ries and federal military research.In reality, biomimicry has emerged more grad-ually, primarily in small victories won at the inter-section of modern science and current manufac-turing practices.
ould nature do?
In theory, biomimicry is simple. Nature hasbeen around solving problems for thousands of millennia. The plants and animals that survivetoday have successfully adapted to their place andsolved their problems over time. If we can exam-ine their successes and adapt them to our ownneeds, biomimicry backers say, we’ll be better off.However, in practice, biomimicry provesslightly more challenging. Bringing a successfulbiomimetic product to market requires a uniquecombination of biological expertise and businesssavvy.Biomimicry is, at its root, a research methodol-ogy, Benyus points out. “If you really want to real-ize the potential of biomimicry as a sustainabilitytool, you have to go through an iterative processwith the organism [you’re modeling],” she says.That requires asking at every step along the way,“How would nature do this?”Answering that question means companiesneed access to a particular type of high-levelbiological knowledge, says Benyus. “You have tobe the kind of biologist that’s pretty rare thesedays,” she said. “You need a broad knowledge of the taxa; I call it amoeba-through-zebraknowledge. A biologist who has studied one genefor their entire career may be stumped by that.”Benyus says she hopes that, as biomimicrygains momentum, the number of jobs fororganismal and ecosystem biologists will multiply.For now, however, many companies seem to findit too difficult to create positions for full-time,design-oriented biologists. Instead, they arelooking outside their walls for expertise.Benyus responded to this need by foundingthe Biomimicry Guild. Through the guild, Benyusand her colleagues work with companies asconsultants to help fold biological knowledge intobusiness applications. Benyus says she and herteam of Biologists at the Design Table push
In April, Janine Benyus spoketo a group in Portland aboutsome of the technologies beingdeveloped by biomimicsaround the globe. A handful ofthe technologies have beenembraced by privatecompanies that are nowseeking to commercialize theirproducts. Some of the sevenexamples below are in the earlystages of research anddevelopment while others arealready succeeding in themarketplace.
Lotus leaves have a remarkableability to shed water andwhatever dirt, mud or bacteriais in its path. The surface ofthe leaves, which repels waterdrops with both chemistry andshape, was successfully copiedby a research team at BonnUniversity. German coatingmanufacturer Sto uses this“lotus effect” in its LotusanColor exterior paint forbuildings. The company claimsbuilding surfaces stay cleanand dry, preventing the growthof mosses and molds.
Inventa Partners and QinetiQdeveloped a material thatharvests water out of vapor inthe air. The fabric mimics thesurface of the Namibian desertbeetle’s wings. When fog rollsthrough the desert environmentwhere the beetle lives, itextends its wings away from itsbody, and the peculiar set ofbumps on its surfacesencourages the water tocondense and roll down to theinsect’s mouth. The materialhas been talked about as a wayto supply water in refugeecamps, and as a way toimprove the efficiency ofheating, ventilation and airconditioning systems.
Baleen Filters
Like its name implies, BaleenFilters found inspiration in thebaleen whales use to separatekrill from ocean water whilefeeding. Whales scoop upmouthfuls of water then forcewater out through the baleen.Krill are trapped in the spinystructures and eaten. BaleenFilters uses a similar techniqueto separate solids fromwastewater, primarily in thefood processing and wineindustries.
Nike includes biomimicry in itsdesign principles. Thecompany’s most successfulapplication to date is itsSphere React lines of clothing.Modeled after the way natureregulates moisture — in theskin of reptiles, on the surfaceof leaves, with birds’ feathers— the materials changes withconditions to let sweatevaporate (and heat dissipate)more easily. The React fabricschange shape in response tomoisture, curling and buckling,either to lift off skin, to openits mesh, or to repel rain.
Novomer LLC
Currently, most of the carbonin plastics comes frompetroleum products, butNovomer has developed aprocess that allows researchersto make plastics with carbondioxide and biologically derivedcompounds. The plastics showpromise for use in medicaldevices and thin-filmpackaging for food, electronicsand pharmaceuticals.
Biosignal produces protectivecoatings that discouragebacterial growth — withoutkilling the bacteria. Thecompany discovered that redalgae uses natural chemicalscalled “furanones” to keeptheir surfaces clean. Furanones“jam” bacteria signal systemsthat encourage multipleorganisms to land on onesurface. The coatings aren’tcommercialized yet, butBiosignal is working oncoatings for contact lenses,medical implants and marinesurfaces.
MR3 Systems
MR3 Systems, Inc. createsfilters that help glean tinyamounts of metals fromwastewater streams. Thetechnology models the waythat microbes use specificorganic molecules to scavengemetals — from nickel andcopper to sulfer arsenic andchloride — from theirsurroundings. MR3 licenses itstechnolgoy for use in a rangeof industrial applications.
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JUNE 2006
Sustainable IndustriesJournal
companies to use biomimicry as a methodology atevery step of the way, from product designthrough manufacturing, shipping and delivery, toend-of-life disposal.One company that embraced the guild’s helpearly on was Nike (NYSE: NKE). Shortly after“Biomimicry” was released, the company collabo-rated with Benyus’ guild to bring a “biologist inresidence” on staff. David Hammond joined theNike design team for about six months, learningabout the company’s specific challenges andinvestigating natural models for solving theseproblems. Hammond’s research insights haven’tleft the company’s Beaverton campus along withhim, however. The “Biologist’s Notebook,” a sum-mary of his research for the team, is available todesigners in Nike’s in-house design library.For Nike, a brief infusion of knowledge hasbeen a valuable start down the path of nature-inspired design. “That inspiration is brought backinto the business... and you have a different angleto look at things,” says Shelley Zimmer, seniormanager for the Nike Considered team.Benyus admits she’s surprised there have beenno other commercial start-ups acting as consult-ants that she’s aware of. The guild now countsclose to
organizations — from Nike to GeneralElectric (NYSE: GE) to the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency to more than a dozen universi-ties — among those asking for advice on how tobring biological insights to their work.“I think that in some ways it’s easier to use thein-house approach, because when we’veconducted our own research, its something we’reproud of — we’re more excited to see the result inproduct,” says Zimmer. “But on the other hand,some of the expertise we can find elsewhere ishelpful. ...There’s someone who spends all dayeveryday thinking about how biomimicry offersus possible solutions.”That idea — leveraging outside expertise — isanother model that seems to be gaining currency,through commercial licensing of biomimetictechnologies.
License to build
Biomimicry happens in two ways, says KaseyArnold-Ince, director of communications for PAXScientific. Either “companies have a problem anda very large encyclopedia of nature’s patents, if you will, to look through, or someone comesupon a solution and now needs to figure out whowould most benefit from it. How do you line upthe benefit with the need?”That’s a challenge the San Rafael, Calif.,company set out to answer.The company’s founder and CEO, JaydenHarman, got interested in how nature movedfluids while working as a naturalist with theAustralian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.What he found, over and over, was the peculiarshape known as the logarithmic or “golden”spiral. Hurricanes and nautilus shells use thesame mathematical pattern of arcs efficiently tomove fluids and Harman realized technologycould do the same [see “PAX Scientific goes withthe flow,”
, March 2005].So-called fluid handling technologies are usedin a wide array of applications, primarily in theform of fans — fans to draw heat from acomputer’s processor, to draw smoke from a hotpan on the stove, to create power from steam, topush a boat through the water. Harman’stechnology claims to do these and other thingsastonishingly well. In air-handling applications,PAX Scientific says its technology uses
percentless energy and is
percent quieter thancompeting products. The U.S. Patent Office hasissued two patents to Harman for the technology,and published three other applications. PAXScientific now holds more than a dozen patents incountries throughout the industrialized world,according to Arnold-Ince.Traditionally, companies that invent productsuse patents as a way to protect their innovation.By owning the rights to a particular way of doingsomething, companies prevent their competitorsfrom occupying precisely the same niche.But Harman didn’t form a company tomanufacture any high-potential fans. Instead, in
, he patented the core technology, formedPAX Scientific, and began pursuing opportunitiesto license — and sublicense — applications of thetechnology to other companies withmanufacturing capacity and expertise.“I will sell you the idea,” Arnold-Ince explains.“I will license you the ability to use this solution.I’ll customize it, shape it, work with your people.You will license it from me and pay me a royaltyon every product we sell.”The licensing arrangement allows PAXScientific to stay focused on its area of expertiseand pursue other applications of its technology,says Arnold-Ince. By focusing on research anddevelopment, the company says it can “realize thepotential” of its technology.According to West Coast law firm BlakelySokoloff Taylor & Zaffman, similar changes inpatent uses are happening across all technologysectors — not just in areas related to biomimicry.Rather than using patents to defend their turf,companies are using patents “offensively,” as well.“We’re constantly doing R&D, and every sooften something spins off for commercializing,”Arnold-Ince says. “We’re spending a lot of timeand focus on, How can we know as much aspossible about the streamline geometry? Then wecan go, Ah, yes, we understand this so well, wecan make this a good match.”PaxFan and PaxIT are the company’s twooffshoots responsible for matchmaking. Withsustainability entrepreneur-author Paul Hawkenas their CEO and boards that include JanineBenyus, the two companies have begun to secureclients for their technologies. No products havebeen released, but Broan-NuTone, which earned$
million in revenues for
, is reportedlyset to launch a new line of kitchen and bathroomfans this summer.The companies won’t disclose financial infor-mation, but Arnold-Ince says PAX Scientific, aswell as Hawken’s PaxFan and PaxIT, are “doingvery well.” Licensing, she says, gives PAXtheflexibility to price the use of their technologyaccording to the benefits gained by the licensee.“In one case, it may really reduce the size of the motor,” she says. “In another case, it’s morequiet, and that makes them competitive. So itreally depends. You do it on a case-by-case basis.That’s the delicate balance of licensing.”Arnold-Ince says she believes licensing is agood fit for many of the inventors who are discov-ering useful applications through biomimicry.Researchers and inventors who are tapped into aparticular set of biological knowledge aren’t likelyto be the best manufacturers, she points out.“You have to bring together the client who hasthe know-how in the industry and the person withthe biomimetic solution who has a lot of know-how in a specific area,” she says. “I think withbiomimicry there’s going to be a lot of that.They’re not going to go into manufacturing.”But for companies already on the manufactur-ing side, licensing has its appeal as well.
Mimicking sea mussels
“I think companies understand that we’removing into a period when one of the real valuepropositions is good design — not just aesthetic,but ‘works-well’ good design — and that tosurvive as a company, you have to not justespouse innovation but have a really robustinnovation process,” Benyus says. “Biomimicry isjust one of the tools companies can use to have amore robust innovation process.”Phil Guay, director of marketing and strategicplanning for Columbia Forest Products, agrees.“That’s really the start of the story: our
“Biomimicry is justone of the tools companiescan use to have a morerobust innovation process.”
Janine Benyus

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