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.
Next page: Three groups, three ideas for product development
For example, planning for a product to partially disintegrate over time is not something that might come to mind as a maintenance strategy for the new rollout. In nature, however, this is done all the time. It's called apoptosis, or timed cell death, and it is key to keeping living things shiny and bright. While this could be the basis for an exciting paradigm shift, it is awfully difficult to translate into a product.
The field of biomimetic inquiry is robust, but, like the green movement phenomenon described by Paul Hawken in "Blessed Unrest," it is scattered all about and difficult to map. It can also be viewed as part of a very productive but often unpredictable complex that is the product development industry. As the field has matured, however, several groups have formed models for adapting bio-inspired innovation to the opportunities and constraints of our guided capitalist market. Here are three very different models.
The Wyss Institute at Harvard University is a research institute centered on bioinspiration and engaging an extended network of researchers, clinicians, engineers and science faculty from public and private academic institutions, hospitals and companies. These collaborations have allowed the institute to form interdisciplinary teams for a range of targeted projects. Further, the institute supports the translation of basic research innovations to the business world by partnering with private companies in testing and application development. An intellectual property portfolio is available for licensing.
The institute is unique in that it was originally conceived as interdisciplinary and nature-based, rather than having grown ad hoc into this field. Further, with a generous $125 million endowment in 2009, the institute has been able to host high-risk research. Indeed, researchers are charged with making groundbreaking discoveries, rather than incremental improvements. It is the goal of the institute to develop enabling technologies that can be translated into useful, and hopefully transformative, products.
These enabling technologies are grouped into six areas: Adaptive Material Technologies, Anticipatory Medical and Cellular Devices, Bioinspired Robots, Synthetic Biology, Biomimetic Microsystems and Programmable Nanomaterials. The results have been prodigious, from a super slippery surface material that defies ice and stains, to biomedical drug delivery systems, to self-organizing and self-healing materials, to nanostructure building blocks, a lung on a chip and an entire book encoded on a strand of DNA.
The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis is one of five funded Energy Innovation Hubs established by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop clean energy solutions. The overall purpose of the program is to reduce our national dependence on oil and enhance energy security. At each hub, large interdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers collaborate and concentrate on a shared clean energy goal. At JCAP the aim is to generate fuels directly from sunlight using sustainable processes.
Government funding, $122 million for five years, will be supporting the efforts of faculty and researchers from both public and private universities, led by the California Institute of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This is a quite different approach than single company government grants and loan guarantees, as exemplified by the ill-fated Solyndra. It differs also from the ARPA-E fund program, where promising single innovations at specific labs are developed to a working prototype stage.
Artificial photosynthesis could be the most disruptive technology ever invented, but the natural process it would mimic is incredibly complicated. The sun strikes the earth with enough energy in an hour to fuel all human activities for a year. Although mankind has not yet learned to use this energy efficiently, nature has. Plants, cyanobacteria, fungi, algae and even some animals are able to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars that can be used directly for either food or building material.
Researchers have worked for decades trying to understand and replicate various aspects of this everyday miracle: light collection, catalysis, storage, membranes, optics. The potential benefits are enormous: Carbon dioxide and hydrogen are abundant and free and could provide an inexpensive, clean and virtually inexhaustible supply of readily usable and storable fuel in the form of liquid hydrogen or methanol. No mining, drilling or harvesting would be required; just the energy from the sun, carbon from the air and hydrogen from water.
Being able to observe, analyze and replicate these natural processes is essential to progress, and basic research into methods for this and new materials to use is necessary. Recognizing this, the DOE has organized JCAP into eight foundational areas, all independently organized toward the common goal of a working model, rather than simple discovery of phenomena. For example, light capture is a basic step in the photosynthesis process, and is done by the chloroplasts within the leaf of a plant. To replicate this industrially means finding a metal semiconductor that is durable, efficient and cheap. This, in turn, means the careful and exhaustive testing of such properties as conductivity and photocorrosion in a material that nature doesn't even use for her success.
Next page: Bridging the "Valley of Death"
The center has been able to build at least two working prototypes of devices that can generate fuel from sunlight, but not at scale or acceptable cost, so the work will go on, probably for many years before a common solution is reached. It will be aided however, by an organization and concerted purpose that should speed its success.
The Centre for Bioinspiration at the San Diego Zoo is a recently established for-profit incubator model that will attempt to leverage the intellectual capital of the zoo to aid bio-inspired technology transfer for private clients. It is an entity within San Diego Zoo Global, the umbrella organization that runs the zoo, Safari Park and the Institute for Conservation Research. The plan is to provide a combination of informal corporate education, consulting and ideation to paying customers, as well as to generate and develop in-house ideas for possible market exploitation. The typical innovation will be brought to a "proof of concept" stage and further commercialization will be left to the client.
The core service of the center will be to provide both the bio-inspired innovation ideas and the first steps toward a structured path to a patent. A typical client will pay for educational workshops and ideation and expert development fees and that payment will go toward license and royalty fees for any idea that the center develops and the client wants.
Expertise for the R&D will come from the more than 100 biology experts at the zoo, and from an on-call cadre of scientists from around the world. The center is allied with the BRIDGE Consortium of San Diego and has ties to five private and public universities in the city. The center is currently in an early phase of development and fundraising for a target of $20 million. Current clients include Sprint, which is working with the center on the first phase of a packaging concept.
Bridging the Valley of Death
These three models of bridging the Valley of Death, that yawning chasm between a great idea and a marketable product or service, are all very different. The first is a private academic institution cluster that supports the existing research of advanced faculty and accelerates their discoveries into the mainstream consciousness and market. In their case, they have some solutions to sell.
The second is a federally financed consortium of remote private and public academic faculty led by a governmental department and focused on a national priority. In their case, they have some problems to solve, and only the government can do it to scale.
The third is a private consulting operation that employs experts from both private and public institutions to exploit market opportunities for corporate clients. In their case, they have some services to sell.
All strive to combine basic research with applied technology. All are looking at the phenomena of nature to advance innovation and create wealth, and all will be part of the growing trend toward a more bio-inspired technological world.