Three ways to bring nature-inspired ideas to market

Research and development in the field of bio-inspired design has blossomed in the past 10 years, with the number of peer-reviewed articles on the subject doubling in size every two to three years to about 3,000 papers. The number of biomimetic patent applications has also grown rapidly, at about 100 additional per year.

This represents a lot of activity, mostly in university or corporate laboratories, and is strongest in the robotics and material science areas, where bioinspiration can now be called a major paradigm. The potential business benefit from this research has been reckoned to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

This renaissance of biologically inspired research is being shaped by several factors, including greatly expanded computational capabilities, as found in cloud-based tools, advanced investigative techniques like microscopy, new capabilities in manufacturing like nanotechnology and 3-D printing, and the still-multiplying information network that allows disparate professionals to share knowledge and work together on complex problems.

Here is just one example of how advances in technology have accelerated the study and emulation of nature.

Measuring structural properties

We can now see and understand smaller and smaller things thanks to powerful new techniques in imaging, like those being developed at The California Institute of Technology. Recently, researchers there have been able to discern and measure the mechanical properties of DNA nanostructures using a so-called 4D electron microscope.

The 4D electron microscope, true to its name, can provide a view to both space and time. It shoots a stream of individual electrons that scatter off objects to produce an image. The electrons are accelerated to wavelengths of picometers, or trillionths of a meter. These ultrafine frequency wavelengths allow the viewing of an object with a resolution a thousand times higher than that of a nanostructure, and with a time resolution of femtoseconds or longer  that is, measured in millionths of a billionth of a second.

Being able to see a nanostructure and compare its shape and behavior over time has allowed the researchers, for the first time, to judge structural properties like stiffness. This new methodology will be important not only in investigating the behavior of living systems, but in designing nanostructures, since knowing structural characteristics is key to building things that work.

Bio-inspired materials' tricky path to market

While all this activity at the lab is exciting, it does not necessarily mean that the discoveries made will become the basis for new products or services. Two of the best-known bio-inspired products, Velcro and Lotusan paint, were successful because of the long and dogged efforts of the individuals who had discovered these phenomena. Moreover, despite more than 10 years of effort, the public has not benefited from a reliable Gecko tape, and the study of spider silk  despite its impressive properties — has not led to a single product on the market. To be fair to Mother Nature, many of the advantages she has inspired are not branded products at all, but structure, process or system emulations that are embedded in everyday items.

The uncertainties of bringing any new idea to market are daunting, but it seems particularly true of bio-inspired innovations. This, I believe, is largely because there is sometimes a double translation required. Not only must we translate an idea into tangible material, but we must also abstract an alien worldview into the methods and materials we are familiar with.

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