The business of bio-inspired design grows in the Empire State

Upstate New York has had a distinguished history as a center of innovative manufacturing. It was the incubator of Kodak, Corning Glass, General Electric and many other successful and pioneering companies from the Industrial Age. Times change, however, and like its Rust Belt neighbors bordering the Great Lakes to the west, the area has had to make a difficult transition to the Information Age. Between 2000 and 2008, upstate New York had lost over 100,000 jobs and nearly 25 percent of its manufacturing base, according to the New York State Office of the Comptroller.

This has not been good news for a region where manufacturing accounts for 20 percent of the wages earned in the private sector. Fortunately, new jobs in information and communications, and electronics and computer manufacturing have increased the opportunities for the region’s well-educated and skilled workforce. The increase in high-paying technical jobs has not happened simply because of the vagaries of the private market. The state and national governments have aided this process in a variety of public/private partnerships.

In October, for example, the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Commerce Department awarded more than $3.5 million to expand technology research and development in the cities of Syracuse and Rochester. Syracuse University will be the home of the Thermal and Environmental Control Systems Cluster, and the University of Rochester will host the Regional Optics, Photonics and Imaging Accelerator. The program's purpose is to develop regional innovation clusters throughout the United States to create, in the words of the Obama administration, “an economy built to last."

A unique partnership

The state of New York also has guided economic redevelopment. One unique partnership that has grown from this has formed around the concept of bio-inspired design. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has embraced biomimicry as one avenue to innovation and committed itself to popularizing the concept among researchers, inventors and manufacturers.

NYSERDA's overall mission is to help New York meet its energy goals: reducing energy consumption, promoting the use of renewable energy sources and protecting the environment. To accomplish this, NYSERDA has sought to develop a diversified energy supply portfolio, improve market mechanisms and facilitate the introduction and adoption of advanced technologies.

To promulgate bio-inspired design within the regional research and development field, the organization has partnered with both public and private players in a unique blend of co-funding, education and matchmaking. Through the Energy Innovation and Business Development program, NYSERDA provides a range of funding opportunities supporting both in-house R&D as well as collaboration with academics and scientists. A key part of the program is to match clean tech companies with academics doing cutting edge research in natural systems and programs. Academics and scientists provide the knowledge base or engage in basic research. The companies provide the challenges, an understanding of the parameters of commercial success and the manufacturing expertise to deliver the solution.

Next page: Bringing biomimicry to air purification

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