Biomimicry incubators: the business case for conservation

The business opportunities found in biomimicry - the application of characteristics found in species to human innovation - makes a strong case for biodiversity conservation, says Siloso Beach Resort sustainability director Sylvain Richer de Forges.

biomimicry diagram
An extract from Otto Lilienthal’s Mechanics of White Stork flight in his Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst (1889). Biomimicry is the application of characteristics found in the natural world to innovation for human needs.

Biomimicry refers to the study of species characteristics in order to derive ideas that could serve our everyday applications. More specifically it is the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problem, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution.

This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost, as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable. Despite a promising start at the end of the 20th century, the concept hasn’t really been exploited at all to the level it could be: the potential hasn’t been understood.

The analogy between natural and corporate systems

The concept of biomimicry is simple: because species on Earth have been around and evolved for hundreds of millions of years, the adaptations that they have developed over the ages have provided them with ultimate optimization attributes with regards to how they interact with their surrounding conditions.

It therefore makes a lot of sense for corporations and governments to search for answers to a multitude of problems faced in the fields of medicine, engineering, architecture and optimal design, among others, by studying species as it is likely that they hold the answers.

We often acknowledge that time allows for improvement. For instance, in the corporate world, many products such as detergents and air conditioners have slowly improved over time to become more efficient in terms of their usage for a specific purpose, for instance in these particular cases respectively cleaning clothes and cooling the indoor air. We can notice this simple rule in most consumer goods that we buy: products get better over time.

This is also true with species: over time, they become better adapted to their surrounding conditions for the simple reason that if they do not adapt, they end up becoming extinct. It is a simple fact that in an environment free of human interference species constantly compete for survival and this drives adaptive changes pushing for optimisation to surrounding conditions.

In the corporate world, things work in a similar way: agencies gain an advantage by becoming better adapted to the surrounding conditions, which can range from market demand, product design, cost efficiency and other factors, will end up pushing unfit competitors out of business.

The similarities between the natural and business world suggest that nature-inspired business models should be adopted instead of current frameworks which are clearly unfit for current and future challenges ahead. Indeed, the current business and societal models to not anticipate and accommodate well to the world growing problems such as inevitable global climate change and related changes in Earth systems that societies will eventually have to face and adapt to.

The bio-corporation business model

The idea of “bio-corporations” - corporations which will eventually incorporate a biomimicry approach to the continuous improvement process as part of their core business model - is a potential solution for the concept of biomimicry to take off. The idea relies on a progressive approach to biomimicry, first using universities as incubators before spreading the concept to corporations. .

The concept is simple: corporations should include a biomimicry department within their business structure. This department would work closely with other departments such as research and development within the business and would act as a central mechanisms for idea generation from which corporate strategic decisions can be derived. The basic framework is highlighted below:

  1. Species  are studied by biologists who are able to identify traits that could benefit the business. The knowledge of biologists will be handy in identifying potential target species, which could have traits relevant to the core business of the organisation.

    There are now a multitude of good examples of this such as: a shutter resistant windscreen derived from the structure of oysters; new generations of revolutionary computers utilizing neuronal connections inspired from species brain; new types of light and resistant airplane materials derived from the cell structures of a species of shrimp; camouflage materials derived from species of octopus; a synthetic leaf that is able to produce oxygen inspired from species of plants; a range of robots inspired from a variety of species muscle and walking patterns; the bullet train nose inspired from a kingfishers bird beak; a multitude of nature inspired architectures; and many others.

  2. Once these traits have been identified, they are passed on to other applied departments which will then focus their research on incorporating these traits within the products design. Attempts to translate a species’ trait into a commercial idea could involve chemistry, mechanical design, or architectural planning, among others. Products with these traits would increase the business’ competitiveness.

While it might take years of research to achieve the desired product outcome, the chances of success are far greater than the current research approach used by corporations of trying to improve their products through trial and error, reverse engineering of existing products, and market research. There are so many innovative ideas out there in nature that remain unexplored.

In the end biomimicry processes could potentially save significant amounts of money compared to current research and development practices. But most importantly the risk factor is significantly reduced as well.

The reason for this is that the efficiency of traits within species for a specific application is already proven from the fact that species have survived using these well adapted traits for so long. Extracting these traits will save research development time and is likely to be an innovation breakthrough. In fact if we look at most biomimicry inspired applications they attract a lot of attention for being innovative.

Universities as incubators

Universities provide a unique setting to try out this concept as they have all the attributes necessary for success including the research framework and the different faculties that would in fact mimic the corporate structures with their various departments.

Led by the faculty of biology, identified traits of interest within species could easily be passed on to other faculties such as engineering, medical sciences, chemistry, social sciences and others as needed in order to mimic and adapt the traits for commercial industrial applications.

In addition to the above interfaculty framework, established universities also have the right setting to develop and issue patents and in so doing, bridge the gap between the academic and corporate worlds.

It would be much easier to implement such a concept in a university environment than a corporate one because universities have a mandate to innovate in the first place, which is not necessarily commercially driven.

The challenges faced

There are obvious reasons why biomimicry hasn’t really taken off.

Communications issues: Because biomimicry research requires a very close interaction between multidisciplinary teams of biologists, engineers, chemists, mechanical designers, artists, amongst others. The work of these groups of people does not often overlap; sometimes, they may simply not speak the same “language”. A multidisciplinary approach is key to the success of bio-inspired corporations.

Mind-set changes: Business have been operating using the same old industrial age models and hierarchy strategies for so many years that it has become a great challenge to change people’s mind-sets due to the inertia it has engendered. Business leaders who see the potential of biomimicry are the ones who could make a real change, starting with their own enterprise as a showcase and then spreading the concepts and successes for other businesses to follow on.

The revolution has already started

In 2013 an initiative reflecting this mind-set was started with funding from the US National Science Foundation with the aim to study business pioneers which have started to incorporate biodiversity preservation concepts within their business framework..

Bio-inspired corporations are likely to be the next business revolution, but the concept has yet to be taken seriously by business leaders and government decision makers.

Sylvain Richer de Forges is director of sustainability, Siloso Beach Resort and foundaer of This article was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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