How nature hums with lessons for business

FlickrUmberto Salvagnin
Bee communication within hives inspired REGEN’s Swarm Energy Management systems, which cut the peak energy demand of building heating and cooling systems.

This story first appeared on Asking Nature, the Biomimicry Institute blog.

Nature provides a rich, largely unexplored library of technologies that process and manage information, materials and energy. While the idea of looking to nature for solutions steadily has become more accepted in innovation circles, many people are still surprised by the breadth and depth of the movement.

Despite the challenges of bringing an innovation from inspiration to commercialization, increasingly, innovative companies are abstracting ideas from nature to open the way to technological breakthroughs, creating profitable products that are often unattainable using conventional approaches to product design and development.

As the Tapping into Nature report on the current state of bioinspired innovation demonstrates, biomimicry is affecting a multitude of industries, expanding markets around the world. It has evolved far beyond a source of initial inspiration to a widely recognized, comprehensive methodology for innovation.

You are probably familiar with some poster children of biomimicry: burr-inspired Velcro fasteners, the kingfisher-inspired Shinkansen bullet train. These two products are some of many examples of successful biomimetic technologies. Commercially available biomimetic products already have affected industries such as agriculture, building systems, textiles, chemical manufacturing, electronics, food manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, software and water treatment. Even more industries are likely to be affected as a result of biomimetic technologies under development by teams across the globe.

Biomimetic innovation has led to breakthrough products that expand or even create their own markets. Of course, these innovations — such as PAX Scientific’s Lily Impeller, Novomer’s Converge technology or Ecovative’s mushroom materials — did not become commercially successful products overnight.

Biomimicry faces the same challenges as any other forms of innovation — years of research, design and development, financial risk and market acceptance. Reflecting on current biomimetic technologies, from nascent ideas to commercialized products, we see a lot of activity in the concept stage, as early ideas often are shared quickly and enthusiastically before being further tested (click here to explore an interactive display of current activity in bioinspired innovation). Facing increasingly rigorous testing and financial constraints, fewer technologies progress into the prototype and development stages. Even fewer products fare well once they enter the market, a typical pattern in product development.

Companies often struggle to overcome the many obstacles between an initial idea inspired by biology and a cost-effective, competitive product. A multidisciplinary team or one comprised of individuals capable of communicating across disciplines can be particularly beneficial to developing biomimetic technology, allowing a team to quickly abstract and implement life’s principles. Like any other innovation process, translating life’s brilliant designs into commercially successful products, services and systems-based solutions still requires a strong entrepreneurial team, insightful strategy, market demand and even a bit of serendipity.

However, unlike other sources of innovation, biomimicry provides an unparalleled opportunity for companies to create products and processes inspired by proven designs: The attributes of organisms that perpetuate in nature because they solve particular challenges. These natural "technologies" have been refined over billions of years of evolution, resulting in inherently sustainable, material- and energy-efficient solutions that can be applied to many of industry’s toughest problems.

Companies that use biomimicry already have generated breakthrough, sustainable products that turn conventional thinking on its head. Companies such as Modern MeadowBlue Planet and SLIPS Technologies are increasing revenues, mitigating risk, reducing costs and supporting the development of a sustainable society.

A recent report by the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute shows increasing activity in the field, estimating that bioinspired innovation could account for about $425 billion of the U.S. GDP by 2030 (valued in 2013 dollars). According to the institute, biomimicry is expected to especially affect the building construction, cement and concrete, chemical manufacturing and power generation, distribution and storage industries, providing sizable growth and profit opportunities to developers and investors alike.

 Fermanian Business & Economic Institute; graphic by Terrapin Bright Green.

Credit: Fermanian Business & Economic Institute; graphic by Terrapin Bright Green.

Biomimicry offers a tantalizing opportunity for forward-thinking companies searching for new sources of innovation that yield groundbreaking, sustainable products and processes. These companies are likely aware that biomimicry encounters many of the same hurdles as other approaches to research and design. Yet the economic, environmental and social returns may be far greater with biomimicry, especially when teams are careful to maintain the sustainable and regenerative aspects of life’s innovations and designs.

Considering the effects of climate change and our growing population, now is the time for organizations of all kinds to embrace nature as a source of innovation.