How the business of biomimicry is happening at the zoo

How the business of biomimicry is happening at the zoo

Editor's note: Larry Stambaugh will be presenting at GreenBiz Forum San Francisco (Feb. 26-28).

San Diego Zoo Global is the first zoo to establish a center focused on applying bio-inspired solutions to industry challenges through biomimicry. The zoo's Centre for Bioinspiration was born five years ago.

Larry Stambaugh, the center's managing director, came on board in August 2012. He chose to shift gears and come to the organization after a 40-year career as a serial CEO because he saw a need to establish a technology transfer and incubator model that would advance nature-inspired ideas in biomimicry. The center plans to openly share the model with other zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums and natural history museums  all places that are great sources of nature-inspired solutions.

GreenBiz editor and reporter Kristine Wong recently spoke with Stambaugh to learn more about the center and its emerging work with business.

Kristine Wong: How did the center get its start?

Larry Stambaugh: The Centre for Bioinspiration has been building for the last five years. It started with the CFO of San Diego Zoo Global, Paula Brock, who recognized biomimicry’s potential to be a source of innovation to business. San Diego Zoo Global operates the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park and Institute for Conservation Research. As the steward of the world’s largest and most diverse living collection of plants and animals, we are a natural place to try to bring bio-inspired ideas to life.

Over the last five years it’s evolved from education efforts, including a leading bioinspiration conference and ideation workshops with companies. Last August we formalized the name of our effort to the Centre for Bioinspiration. We’re focused on technology transfer and filling the gap between identifying ideas inspired by biology and getting them out in the marketplace.

The San Diego Zoo is extraordinarily positioned to do this because we have a nearly 100-year history of species knowledge and leadership, a significant conservation research organization and global collaboration relationships that we can leverage towards these challenges.

Photo of Morpho butterfly (a source of inspiration translated to technology) courtesy Didier Descouens (Museum of Toulouse) via Wikimedia Commons

Next page: Butterfly wing-inspired screens, spider web-inspired windows, lotus leaf-inspired paint

KW: What are some examples of some bio-inspired ideas that have been developed in this field?

LS: There’s a new display screen for phones and tablets that was inspired by structural color found in a butterfly wing.  The Morpho butterfly has a reflective and fluorescent blue color that inspired producing color in a new way, and one that promises to increase battery life. Qualcomm is developing this technology.

Another example was inspired by the fact that birds fly into windows when they see the reflection of a tree, but don’t fly into spider webs. A new window product inspired by this observation contains the pattern of a spider web in it, imperceptible to you and me, but seen by a bird that prevents birds from flying into them./p>

There’s also a new type of paint that can allow buildings painted with the paint to be self-cleaning. It was inspired by the lotus leaf. What happens with a lotus leaf is that the structure of its surface enables it to clean itself when water interacts with it and that structure has inspired the new product.

Lastly, the fact that sharks don’t get barnacles stuck to them was another source of an idea. A new material was developed for the outside of navy ship hulls that was inspired by the properties of sharks’ skin. This keeps the ship clear of barnacles and also saves energy and fuel as the ship has less resistance when moving through waters.

KW: How do you work with companies to develop the bio-inspired technology ideas?

LS: At the zoo, there are many adaptations in animals and plants that we observe daily that can inspire new ideas for an industrial challenge. We conduct a workshop process with companies that come to us with a specific industrial challenge and link natural adaptations to develop a novel approach to solving the problem. We work with the companies in this process to conduct the ideation in a unique way and then translate the ideas into working models for a solution.

KW: How do staff identify these ideas in the plants and animals living at the zoo?

LS: The San Diego Zoo is almost 100 years old, so we have a lot of knowledge available to us in our staff and many relationships that give us access to the vast knowledge being built about nature.  

KW: Tell me more about the workshop process you guide companies through.

LS: There are several steps to the process conducted during two workshops.

First, a company comes to us with an industrial challenge they need help with. For example, it might be that they want a better packaging solution. We’ll break the challenge down by functions  such as if they want the packaging to be more flexible or impact resistant. Then we’ll look into nature and start with an ideation workshop focused on functions and adaptation seen in plants, animals and aquatic life. There, together with our biologists, botanists, zoologists and others, we identify a number of possibilities that can inspire new solutions.

Then, the second workshop with the company builds on the ideation phase and proceeds to look at the practical side of reducing the ideas to a working model and incorporates disciplines such as material science, engineering and chemistry.

The cost for companies to enroll in workshops varies, depending on the level of the challenge and often intellectual property will be created as a result of the workshop.

The center licenses the ideas developed to the companies and will receive royalties from them. These funds will enable the center to continue to support the San Diego Zoo Global’s conservation research and nature-inspired innovation.

Next page: Why biomimicry is a solution for sustainability challenges

KW: How can observations from the natural world apply to sustainability challenges?

LS: There is an economic report released just a couple of years ago from the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute that said this field would add 1.6 billion jobs to the economy and can reverse depletion of natural resources an estimated $15 billion within 15 years. Bioinspiration offers a path to accomplish corporate sustainability challenges. For example, nature is often highly efficient, and it manufactures using very few compounds, so we’re likely to have much better practices if we look to nature’s solutions.

KW: I know that Sprint came to the center to do a workshop. Tell me more about it.

LS: Sprint came to us with a challenge around its packaging. They wanted to find a way to improve it beyond post-consumer waste material. We took on the challenge and conducted an ideation workshop with them and came up with several possible ideas. We will be conducting the second workshop to advance those possibilities into working models next. Harvard Business School came to the San Diego Zoo to do a case study on our center model, and observed the Sprint ideation workshop. It is expected that the case study will be out in March or April.

KW: What are some of the things you’ll be working on later this year?

LS: We’ve got a bioinspiration conference coming up in early November at the San Diego Zoo, where we’ll be hosting the leaders of this new field and talking about the gap that exists between taking ideas we see in nature and translating them to an idea for market. This field is beginning the advancement of nature-inspired ideas to make a better, more sustainable world.