Tapping into Nature: Bioinspired innovation as economic engine

A maple seed
ShutterstockIrina Kozorog
The spinning pattern of a falling maple seed is inspiration for efficient fans and other products.

This is an excerpt from the Tapping into Nature report by Terrapin Bright GreenThis section was prepared by the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute. It forecasts the economic impact that bioinspired innovation will have on gross domestic product and job growth by 2030 ($425 billion and 2 million jobs, respectively). 

It is becoming increasingly clear that innovation and technological breakthroughs are not only keys to economic growth in the 21st century but also are necessary for human prosperity. The millions of materials and systems found in nature are a treasure trove of innovation, and companies can benefit by using these designs to reduce the time and costs associated with technology and product development. New channels of innovation, new products and markets, increased efficiency, and sustainability goals can all be realized through bioinspired innovation.

Many companies have profitably pursued the path of biologically inspired innovation. Biomatrica, a rapidly growing biotechnology company, licenses a system for preserving and stabilizing biological samples based on processes observed in brine shrimp.

An industrial fan by PAX Scientific
PAX Scientific

An industrial fan by PAX Scientific, which uses vortices for design inspiration

Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of carpet tiles, developed its best-selling product line by mimicking the random colors and patterns of the forest floor.

PAX Scientific — founded on the insight that human hearts, birds in flight and falling maple seeds use vortices to move fluid efficiently — has designed and sold its vortex water technologies to more than 1,000 customers, greatly reducing energy consumption at each installation.

While some concepts inspired by nature may disrupt existing markets, others may open up entirely new ones, as was the case with Qualcomm, which acquired the company Iridigm to form Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, or QMT. QMT developed low power, color display screens that can be viewed in full sunlight, a technology inspired by the way light interacts with the surface of butterfly wings. In recent years, the technology has been used in e-readers and smart watches, allowing Qualcomm to enter into the electronic display market.

Sustainability initiatives are often driven by governmental regulations or the whims of individual managers. However, regulations can shift when economic growth or jobs appear to be in jeopardy, and a firm’s management team may serve only a limited tenure.

Shareholders will always look at underlying returns and profitability, but individuals and investment firms are increasingly considering environmental and social concerns. Bioinspiration offers a bridge between the seemingly incompatible interests of business and the environment. It is a compelling "win-win" approach: Bioinspired innovation enables businesses to realize profit while also achieving sustainability goals.

Transformative impact

Bioinspired innovation has the potential to transform large segments of the U.S. economy by increasing both gross domestic product and employment. The Fermanian Business & Economic Institute estimates that bioinspired innovation could account for approximately $425 billion of U.S. GDP by 2030 (valued in 2013 dollars). Beyond 2030, the impact of bioinspired innovation is expected to grow as knowledge and awareness of the field expand.

The industries shown in Figure 1 represent the majority of the $425 billion that bioinspired innovation will contribute to 2030 GDP. The largest single-industry contributions are expected in building construction (including the cement and concrete sector), chemical manufacturing and the power generation, distribution and storage sectors. Some of the largest impacts of bioinspired innovation will occur in the manufacture of durable and nondurable goods due to the increased use of new bioinspired materials and processes.

Also, there is a strong link between bioinspired innovation and energy; the transportation, oil and gas, and utility industries all stand to benefit from, or be transformed by, bioinspired innovation. In total, these sectors represent $113 billion — more than a quarter of the total forecasted GDP related to bioinspired innovation.

While bioinspired products will impact the economic performance of fields as diverse as transportation, electronics and food manufacturing, they will also increase employment in these sectors. Reflecting the expected penetration in various industries, bioinspired innovation could generate approximately 2 million jobs by 2030 (see Figure 2).

Tracking activity in bioinspired innovation

The Da Vinci Index 2.0, which was created by the Institute, is derived from a comprehensive database that uses advanced methodology and information to measure activity in bioinspiration, biomimicry and biomimetics. The Index monitors the number of U.S. patents issued, scholarly articles published, grants awarded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, and the value of those grants for any given period.

By extension, the Index offers insight into technologies in development at universities, research labs and corporations. Granular data within the Index provides information on which fields of study are receiving the most attention and which regions of the world are most active in bioinspired innovation.

DaVinci growth index over time

The Da Vinci Index 2.0 (see Figure 3) is estimated to have reached a record high of just over 900 in 2014 (where the year 2000 equals 100), mainly due to a surge in published scholarly articles and steady growth of patents. The strong trend indicates the continued growth of bioinspired research and technology development.

Compared to the keen interest recently expressed in "green tech," bioinspired innovation offers less risk since it is less reliant on varying regulations (such as mandates for alternative energy sources or reduced pollution) and subsidies, which also fluctuate. As with any cutting-edge research, the challenge is to transition from compelling preliminary studies and ideas to tangible implementation and commercialization.

While total utility patent applications in the United States increased about 100 percent between 2000 and 2014, bioinspired patent activity has been much more active. U.S. utility patents related to bioinspired innovation grew by nearly 750 percent relative to 2000 filings. Though investment returns for the bioinspired products developed from these applications will vary, investors looking for new ideas and investment opportunities will direct increasing amounts of capital to the field as it becomes better known through documented successes.

The future of bioinspired innovation

Although bioinspired innovation holds enormous potential for the global economy, it still has far to go to fulfill its promise of transforming large portions of our economy. The vast majority of Americans, including company leaders and government policymakers, are not yet familiar with the idea of looking to nature to solve human challenges.

Bioinspired innovation clearly represents an appealing niche for financial and investment markets. It is an area that the Institute expects will provide sizable growth and profit opportunities to companies and financial service providers alike.