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

The Biomimicry Column

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

CC license by joiseyshowaa/Flickr

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.

Image credit: CC license by ny156uk/Flickr

Funding can support proof of concept through actual manufacturing. The program’s support is targeted to clean-energy technologies in these areas: building products; additive manufacturing and biomaterials; solar power; smart grid and battery storage technologies; ceramics and thin films; and electronics and software.

One pivotal player is Terrapin Bright Green, a privately held sustainability consultancy based in New York City that specializes in promoting biomimicry. NYSERDA hired Terrapin in 2010, under a technical assistance contract, to help promote the bio-inspired approach, find biomimetic solutions to energy issues and match academics with manufacturers for proposed NYSERDA biomimicry projects. Terrapin had been active before the start of the program and together with the Biomimicry Guild of Helena, Mont., had organized a Biomimicry Roadmapping Workshop and a 2009 symposium on the topic at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

A preliminary case study

One example of this work is with Air Innovations, a mid-sized company in Syracuse that develops and manufactures OEM environmental control systems and other air conditioning products. One of their products, the HEPAirX, is a room air purification product using HEPA filtration and/or carbon-based filtration for the removal of airborne particulates and volatile organic compounds. The HEPAirX “dilutes, filters and reduces the indoor pollutants that are often cited as causes of asthma, respiratory irritations and allergic reactions.” 

The company was searching for a better filtering technique for their product, and thought nature-inspired innovation could provide an answer. They had two problems. First, the better that the filter worked, the more particulates it collected, and that collection reduced the airflow and increased the energy needed to pass air through it -- a built in contradiction and devolution of performance. Second, there was no way economically to tell when the filter had reached its “saturation” point when collecting VOCs. For this reason, filters would be changed out, perhaps prematurely, on a scheduled rather than an as-needed basis.

Terrapin interviewed company personnel briefly, researched some natural examples of self-maintaining filters and then held a general education workshop about bio-inspired building technologies. The workshop focused on looking for solutions through the air filtration process of plants and how an AC unit might mimic the same process. This allowed Air Innovations to formulate potential biomimicry R&D project ideas that would improve their system. Through this workshop, Air Innovations was able to further define their manufacturing challenge and lay out a path forward for research needs to advance possible biomimetic solutions.

After the workshop, Terrapin consulted with Air Innovations about this needs list and identified a research partner for the company at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) at the University of Albany.

As a result of the initial discussions, CNSE identified several naturally inspired methods of breaking down gaseous toxins and pollutants to improve a building’s indoor air quality. The meeting also had helped refine the research needs for the project and determined the CNSE team’s role in leading the research efforts.

The CNSE team, led by Dr. Nathaniel Cady, determined that additional research was needed to understand the biomimetic concepts initially identified before Air Innovations could apply the ideas to product development. The two partners applied for NYSERDA funding to conduct a feasibility study on a method to break down gaseous toxins through redox reactions found in nature and received funding for 2013. The first phase of research comprised a detailed literature review compiling information on absorption, phytoremediation, biocatalysis and photocatalysis. Specific functional examples were identified for each topic area. The researchers found that bio-templated/bio-inspired nanomaterials could yield a possible solution and that this warranted further study.

After the initial literature review, the CNSE team met with Air Innovations to review their findings and discuss possible technological developments. Air Innovations provided important industry insight into the needs and parameters of commercialization. As a result, the CNSE team was able to refine and expand the focus of their biology-specific research as it related to filtration and related energy savings, and they are halfway through the final feasibility report stipulated in the NYSERDA contract.

A possible model

This New York example may provide a model for innovative bio-inspired product development within other locales. NYSERDA has not tried to incubate a bio-inspired based company by “pushing” a technology unto the market, but rather has presented the advantages of the bio-inspired approach and provided funding to companies in need of solutions -- the “demand pull” approach. Demand alone, however, may not be sufficient for successful innovation and technology change -- the technology must be sufficiently mature and compatible with existing delivery mechanisms. Rather than targeting startups, the program emphasizes existing companies that have commercially viable products but require innovative solutions to solve limitations.

Key to this compatibility appears to be the matchmaking of research and manufacturing in a focused and funded application, and the sometimes messy and iterative process of interdisciplinary collaboration between those inspired by discovery and those constrained by commercial performance. It remains to be seen if this process will yield an important energy product improvement within the next few years.

Although in its early stages, this program can be seen only as unique and pioneering. As Chris Garvin, project lead at Terrapin, put it, “The Terrapin-NYSERDA biomimicry project is the only state-funded innovation program focused on harnessing nature’s genius to drive innovation in the U.S. It’s a worthy model for other states to emulate.”