“A biologist, a designer, an engineer, and an entrepreneur all walk into a room together” might sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but such a meeting is how the concept of biomimicry is applied at some of the biggest, most innovative companies and institutions in Northeast Ohio.
Put in the simplest terms, biomimicry is the process of looking at how nature does things for inspiration in finding solutions to problems or creating new innovations. One of the most famous examples of biomimicry in action is when George de Mestral developed velcro in 1941. The Swiss electrical engineer was walking in the woods with his dog when he noticed the seeds of the burdock plant clinging to them. Taking a closer look under the microscope, he saw that the seeds used a series of hooks to fasten themselves to the loops found in both the fabric of his pants and his dog’s fur. After several years of experimentation and research, de Mestral patented the fastener, which became the well-known product many people use today.
While humans have looked to nature for inspiration for centuries, biomimicry wasn’t a widely recognized concept or field until 1997 when Janine Benyus used the term in her game-changing book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The book inspired scientists, engineers, designers, and others around the world to look to nature and its lessons from 3.8 billion years of evolution for modern solutions.
That inspiration impacted Northeast Ohio in a big way. In 2007 and 2008, local entrepreneur Tom Tyrrell was introduced to the concept of biomimicry while part of a Cuyahoga Valley Initiative consortium discussing local sustainability and economic development. As Tyrrell learned more about the field, he realized its potential impact. Tyrrell founded Great Lakes Biomimicry (GLB) in 2010 with the purpose of inspiring innovation and economic growth in the region. Around the same time, Tyrrell connected with Dr. Peter Niewiarowski, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Akron, which led to the idea of putting together a class around the subject.
Douglas Paige, an industrial design professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art had also already brought up the concept of biomimicry at one of his classes. After discussions with Niewiarowski, the two of them designed a GLB-funded class that combined CIA and University of Akron students. This became the first step that led to the launch of the University of Akron’s Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center (BRIC) in 2012.
“Those conversations were extremely forward thinking back in the day and eventually involved a hundred different people in our community and our region having meetings, talking about this and seeing is this really a viable business plan, is this something we could do,” explains Christine Hockman, one of three current co-directors of GLB.
GLB began establishing a footprint for biomimicry in the region by engaging corporate, academic, and other local organizations and institutions as partners to learn how looking at nature’s organisms, systems, and processes could help them innovate and educate. An important part of building that local presence was for GLB to acquire sponsor companies for the University of Akron’s Ph.D. program that would be launched as part of BRIC.
Not only was this the world’s first Ph.D. program offered in the field of biomimicry, its fellows would also spend half their time embedded with the internal project teams of sponsor companies to see how biomimicry concepts could be implemented and applied to their own processes. In turn, these sponsor companies have access to subject matter experts from GLB and the University of Akron’s various colleges of engineering, arts and sciences, polymer sciences, and business.
The first group of fellows began the five-year program in 2012, spending up to 20 hours a week working directly with local businesses Parker Hannifin, GOJO Industries, and Sherwin Williams as sponsor companies. The program immediately drew in talent from far and wide. Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens was a graduate student in Belgium who became enamored with biomimicry after a friend sent her a video of a talk done by Benyus and then attending one in person. Emily Kennedy came from Boston after reading Benyus’ book in a course she took as part of a study-abroad program in Australia. Another fellow, Bor-Kai “Bill” Hsiung came from Taiwan.
“If you have these major Northeast Ohio companies and they’re all coming together learning about biomimicry and feeding the only Ph.D. program that we know of, all of a sudden you have a cluster of knowledge that’s here and no place else,” mentions John Nottingham, co-president of Nottingham Spirk and GLB board member.
GLB, as part of this partnership with the University of Akron’s BRIC, also hosts the world’s only Biomimicry Corporate Innovation Council which meets at least bi-annually. It provides a platform for corporate sponsors, Ph.D. fellows, and experts in various fields to get together and discuss their findings, challenges, and successes so that they can collaboratively advance the work done through biomimicry.
The biomimicry field has become more recognized and seen worldwide growth since 1997, but what was it about Northeast Ohio specifically that made this hub come together here? In addition to passionate people, many of who volunteered their time to help, Northeast Ohio had the right mix of industries, companies, and academic institutions to allow for a collaborative approach between business and education. These regional traits permitted the area to become a global hub for biomimicry research, education, and application.
“It’s really a unique situation,” Hockman states. “That’s why we haven’t seen it pop up all over the world. Really, we’ve had smaller groups and organizations around the world doing biomimicry that maybe want to start a hub. They contact us and ask ‘how have you done this?’”
The efforts to grow the regional biomimicry presence don’t stop at sponsor companies and the Corporate Innovation Council. Partnerships were formed with various schools and institutions like the Cleveland Institute of Art, Baldwin Wallace University, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo among others to add even more expertise and opportunities to make biomimicry more mainstream. This includes educating grade school students about the idea of biomimicry and thinking differently in looking to nature for inspiration.
GLB and the BRIC also co-deliver professional education and innovation services to companies. Innovation services provide consultations to companies, helping them solve specific short-term problems by engaging local biomimicry expertise. Professional education services includes running workshops to introduce biomimicry concepts to companies and teach people how to observe nature and see the potential that biomimicry has to impact their own projects.
With this local ecosystem in place for almost a decade and showing positive results, the goal is to continue that growth. This is done by increasing awareness and engagement about what biomimicry is and what it can offer in coming up with novel designs.
“We were just at an industry conference, the Society of Automotive Engineers in April, and we had a lot of interest from companies, and they were scattered all over the U.S. and one in India.” Hockman says. “If we continue to get this type of interest then we have to scale up as an organization, so that’s what we’re working really hard to do now.”
Biomimicry in Northeast Ohio has created the recipe to be something very special to both the region and the world. Not only does the field serve as a magnet for brilliant minds, bring in economic development through cutting-edge innovations, and create new jobs, it also provides the potential for designing sustainable, environmentally-friendly solutions to help preserve our future and the planet.
Biomimicry in Action
Using biomimicry to solve a design problem requires someone to not only consider how nature does something, but also ask the right questions based on the functions a design needs to achieve its goal.
Nature is both elegant and efficient, using only the energy and resources it needs to perform its functions making it the perfect place to look for inspiration. Here are some real-world examples of how biomimicry helped local companies discover new solutions for their products.
When locally-headquartered GOJO Industries wanted to make its liquid dispensers more energy efficient, the question they asked wasn’t “how does nature make a dispenser?” but rather “how does nature distribute and transfer fluids?”
Emily Kennedy, a biomimicry Ph.D. student and the GOJO team looked at various examples in nature, like how squids propel themselves through water, how cobras spit their venom, how trees move water and nutrients up to its leaves against gravity, and how the human heart pumps blood. These examples inspired four different dispensing design patent applications which used half the energy through various operational efficiencies.
GOJO also found that nature had an answer when they wanted to design a versatile mounting bracket for use in various hospital or care environments.
Researchers studied the way nature attaches itself such as bird talons, starfish suckers, and bat feet. When humans clench their fists, it takes energy and being in an active state. However, bat claws are in a resting state when clenched and use their bodies as a counterweight while roosting. They use energy when their “hands” are open – the complete opposite to us. The company recently announced that this inspired a design for a new clamp mechanism.
Researchers at the University of Akron studied the mechanism geckos use to attach and move around on surfaces. These researchers turned their discoveries into Akron Ascent Innovations, a startup that launched a product called ShearGrip, a strong, dry adhesive that leaves no residue.
They found that the pads on a gecko’s feet are covered with millions of microscopic, pliable hairs. These hairs get so close to surfaces that they form a molecular bond that holds the geckos in place and becomes unstuck as the gecko moves. This mechanism for attaching and detaching led the researchers to create polymer-based nanofibers used to mimic that function in creating the revolutionary new adhesive.
Cleveland-based startup Hedgemon was founded in 2015 by University of Akron Biomimicry Ph.D. fellows, among others while looking at the problem of concussions. The team started examining animals that are built to take a hammering and absorb head shock such as woodpeckers, rams and hedgehogs.
The team found that hedgehog spines are structured to deflect impacts by hitting adjacent quills, initiating a cascade effect that disperses the load across many different directions instead localizing it. The team has done initial testing with 3D-printed liners in helmets based off this design with promising results that are on par with current technologies in use. Next steps for the are to continue optimizing the design using polymer injection molding techniques that they believe will further improve results.