Biological Models for Innovating How We Innovate

This week I came across another LinkedIn post by Pete Foley. In the post, Sex, Nature and Innovation Strategy, Foley poses an interesting question. In addition to inspiring innovative technologies, can biological models also help us innovate how we innovate?

The equivalent of innovation in the biological world is sexual reproduction. So the question is, can reproductive strategies – tested by the environment and refined through evolution – serve as models for more effective innovation strategies? Consider salmon spawning. As Foley explains, the salmon spawns “huge numbers of cheap ‘prototypes’ into the ‘market.’ Attrition is high but the cost of each prototype is low, and selection is made under real market conditions.” Could companies, especially those that sell low cost consumer products, learn from the salmon’s ‘real-time innovation’ model?

Salmon Alevin 'Prototypes'

Salmon Alevin ‘Prototypes’

This is just one example of many reproductive strategies from which we could learn. Foley mentions a number of others in his post, which I encourage you to read. While I doubt the usefulness of some of his analogies, the post is still very thought-provoking.

One thing Foley does not mention in his post is the long tradition (dating back to the 1930s) of borrowing biological frameworks to understand the process of invention. Drawing an analogy with evolutionary biology,  technological novelty can be understood as arising from the recombination and synthesis of existing technologies. Models of biological evolution are even proving helpful when it comes to understanding and predicting which patents are likely to give rise to more patents and which are “dead ends.” The ability to predict which patents are most ‘fertile’ could change the innovation game. Innovators often mine patents databases for ideation stimulus, but the database is huge, so this can be very time consuming. An algorithmic filter that would limit search results to only those patents most likely to give rise to more patents would increase innovation efficiency. (Further Reading: Technology as a complex adaptive system: evidence from patent data)

Recent Biomimicry Happenings

We all know that the field and resources of biomimicry are growing rapidly. With Janine Benyus and Biomimicry 3.8 planting seeds all over the world, many continue to sprout, from flourishing databases, to individual certifications, to entire groups forming in pockets around the globe. An aspect of biomimicry that I particularly enjoy is the global nature of our communications and getting different aspects and ideas from different cultures and perspectives.

This week I want to call attention to just a few of the things going on outside of the UA, starting with our colleagues over in the UK. Much like we here at BRIC and Great Lakes Biomimicry, they are a small but mighty group dedicated to the sustainable ethos of biomimicry. Check out the shiny new Biomimicry-UK website launched in November, 2014, and sign up to follow them. It’ll be great to watch them grow and I look forward to their news section – always awesome seeing the latest positive happenings!

As an Education Fellow, it’s great to connect with others and see how they’re making biomimicry education fun for our kids. Through the Biomimicry-UK site, I stumbled upon this Bulgarian gem – bio-game.org, developed by Kamelia Miteva, that focuses on teaching biomimicry through games and workshops. Ok, yes, it’s in Bulgarian, but thanks to Google, we can certainly overcome that little obstacle and get the gist of the games and ideas.

And, as of October, 2014, a new biomimicry Wiki has been developed out of Tongji University and the Biomimetic Design Lab, where, much like the popular Wikipedia, anyone who signs up can edit and help develop the page.

It’s always fun to see what’s developing in the world of biomimicry and I’m looking forward to following and collaborating with each of these groups to see what sort of boundless creativity happens!

Speaking about Biomimicry at my alma mater

I’m currently back in Taiwan for holidays. This past Tuesday (12/16), I was invited to speak at the Department of Applied Chemistry, National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan – where I got my bachelor’s degree. I was there to share my experience in Biomimicry to a group of 60-ish masters students in their “Polymer Physics” class. My talk was not tailored to fit the theme of the class, but rather a broad discussion about Biomimicry that planted some seeds in their minds that may grow in the future. It turned out many students came to me with questions after the talk, and the hosting professor told me that one of his students, who is still deciding his research topic, approached him and expressed interest in doing something related to Biomimicry. So, I guess I succeeded in my mission overall!

During my talk, I shared one case study that I think is an excellent example of deep Biomimicry. Two teams from different universities developed very similar technologies, LiquiGlide from MIT and SLIPS from Harvard. Both technologies are modeled after the pitcher plant as shown in the video below.

The technologies are extremely low friction and slippery surfaces, which can repel liquid in a similar fashion as conventional super hydro/oleo/omniphobic surfaces (lotus effects), but are much more resilient to physical stress, deformation and defects compared to lotus effects. You can see them in action in the videos below.

For me, this case study is a good example for deep Biomimicry because it satisfied the following criteria:

  1. Non-toxic (FDA-approved material, you can even eat it without worrying about any adverse affects.)
  2. Easy to manufacture (Low production cost)
  3. Solves a fundamental problem with broad and diverse applications.
  4. Material properties can be fine tuned to meet the performance that clients/customers need
  5. The solution increases efficiency and decreases waste

So, what’s your favorite Biomimicry case study and why? Please share in the comments below.

Thank you very much & happy holidays!!!!

PAX Pure Desalination Technology

The Californian company PAX Pure came up with a new desalination solution that combines fundamental thermodynamics with insights from biomimicry. PAX Pure was founded in 2012 and formed out of the pioneering biomimicry company PAX Scientific that is focusing on natural streamlined geometries for fluid-handling technologies such as fans, turbines, or impeller pumps. PAX Scientific has developed products like exhaust fans and water mixing technologies that supposedly mimic seaweeds that, though fragile, survive storm surges by changing shape to a spiral to let the water go by. The spiral shape the seaweed assumes is a Fibonacci spiral, a centripetal spiral that draws fluid from the outer edges of the spiral toward the center. The result is significantly reduced drag and resistance.

The PAX Pure technology mimics high altitude evaporation, which requires less energy due to the lower atmospheric pressure (the lower the pressure the less energy is required to evaporate water). This insight is already used in vacuum distillation in the oil industry. By applying a vacuum to the water phase the atmospheric pressure is reduced or even reversed depending on how strong the applied vacuum is. Thus, less or sometimes even no thermal energy is required to evaporate the water. The new approach of PAX Pure is that the technology is capable of retaining a vacuum while condensing the water in only one step. Usually those steps are separated from each other and done in separate chambers. A schematic representation of the process is illustrated in figure 1:

 

Figure 1: Schematic overview of the PAX Pure technology [Baker; 2014]

Figure 1: Schematic overview of the PAX Pure technology [Baker; 2014]

This new design allows evaporation at low temperature (around 60° C) without requiring any moving parts or membranes. The low operating temperature allows the utilization of low cost chamber construction materials such as plastics, which makes the process easily scalable. Furthermore, industrial waste heat could be used to power the evaporation process. According to PAX Pure the proposed technology is able to handle water with high levels of total dissolved solids.

Since the technology is currently under development for specific applications, not much detailed information on the functional principles of the technology are available but can be requested from PAX Pure over their official website.

 

References:

Baker K., PAX Pure Investor Presentation. 11.19.2014: Accessed from: https://prezi.com/9cxgrkf7nmin/pax-pure-investor-presentation/.

Pax Pure – Official website, accessed 12.9.2014: http://paxpure.com.

Pax Scientific – Official website, accessed 12.9.2014: http://paxscientific.com.

Biomimicry: A Path to Sustainable Innovation

After a long journey, we are finally able to share a preprint manuscript of our article “Biomimicry: A Path to Sustainable Innovation*,” which has been accepted for publication in Design Issues, an MIT Press Journal. Co-authors Emily Kennedy, Bill Hsiung, Peter Niewiarowski, Matthew Kolodziej and I have diverse backgrounds, including biochemistry, international relations, biology, and fine arts.

The purpose of this paper is to introduce scholars, students, and professionals in all fields of design to biomimicry and its potential to yield sustainable outcomes when practiced in a deep, thoughtful way. The design community is an important leverage point for fueling dialogue about biomimicry because designers work “at the nexus of values, attitudes, needs, and actions,” and, therefore, are uniquely positioned to act as transdisciplinary integrators and facilitators.

We hope you enjoy the reading, and that it sparks some discussion points that will further improve and stimulate the development of biomimicry. It is important to keep disseminating the biomimicry approach in new fields, and shed light on how we, together as a team of advocates for biomimicry, can stimulate newcomers to be more environmentally and socially responsible while still being innovative and not having to reduce your standard of living.

* © Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

FINAL Manuscript_Biomimicry – A Path to Sustainable Innovation

A point of confusion?

 

Imagine being one of four members of a corporation that controls 80% of a resource in a $188.4 billion dollar industry (Grace, 2014).  Specifically, an industry that is the largest single agricultural enterprise.  Take a minute, enjoy it… feels pretty good doesn’t it?  I mean after all it’s good to be the King!  Sure you got your headaches, EPA, protesters, general unenlightened haters, but hey, it’s the cost of doing business.  When you produce a resource which people consume fifty-six billion, eight hundred and eighty million pounds of a year (W, 2007) a bit of waste or toxic sludge is bound to occur 30 million pounds of contaminants in 2009 (EWG, 2014).  Pay fines, dig a hole, hell, just fill a swimming pool with it.  It costs, but in this game what it really costs is just a dent in profits.  Now that you’re living high on the hog, what would you say if, I could, as you read this, end one of the most environmentally damaging, costly aspects of your business.  In fact, if you were to humor me I could even save you, one of the noble quartet, an incredible amount of money.  No, no, I’m not asking you to invest in junk bonds, an Arab prince or any sort of slick pyramid scheme.  Imagine investing in a circle, yourself as a closed loop system.  What’s more I can even show you how a small scale model works perfectly and is eminently scalable.  What do you say would you say?

Yes?

No, I don’t like profits and I want to bury the landscape in toxic sludge?

While I doubt that the second question is a likely comment, I can’t help but wonder, if the noble quartet, the meat industry, is even aware that there is a solution buzzing naggingly around their heads.  Currently several billion a year is spent on feed grain:

  • 80% of all corn grown in the U.S is used in animal feed (Johnson, 2013)
  • Over 30 million tons of soybean meal is consumed as livestock feed in a year(Forman, 2002)
  • 119 million tons of Hay per year(EPA, 2011)
  • 499 million bushels of wheat(EPA, 2011)

Want to hear how to dramatically reduce these costs if not outright eliminate them?  Well let me introduce you to a couple of my friends:

Hermetia illucens, (Black soldier fly ) Fig1.

soldier

Musca domestica (the common housefly) Fig2.

brendil

These two species of fly have a superb ability to consume waste.  Specifically the larva have the ability to consume the waste and take in the nutrients the waste provides.  To create livestock feed “…The larvae are cooked, dried and converted into a meal that is 40% protein and 46% fat. The oils can be extracted, which boosts the protein content to above 70%…” (Courtright, 2014).  EnviroFlight, an Ohio based company, is in the business of capitalizing on the bug to feed business.  In the slow five years the company has been in operation, the meat industry’s interest or even awareness of it has been largely lacking.  Maybe it’s the idea of maggots that has got everyone squirmy, but even if the wriggly fellows are unappealing, how much more appealing can headache and cost of dealing with the never ending supply of waste be?  The maggot flakes have a tremendous potential in the feed world that hasn’t even been scratched let alone nibbled at.  Even outside of the slaughter house there are examples of how the feed could be used:

  • In the fish and wildlife area; Frequently when maintaining the health of a river or waterway it sometimes become necessary to boost the nutrient flow so that fry can grow well and fast enough to adequately repopulate the schools.  Traditional feed becomes expensive, and sometimes in my experience  regular feed gets replaced with dried cat food.  While this alternative works, it also introduces a whole set of additives that are not natural to the ecosystem.  Maggots fed a steady diet of slaughter house waste are potentially the cheapest source of high nutrient feed, and are more natural to the environment.  Think of what fish’s primary food is (hint: insect larva).
  • Cat, dog and various animal food incorporate a sizable portion of grain and meat. The food could be instead be supplemented by dehydrated maggots.  Our animals already actively eat several pounds a year of insects many of which are not readily edible.  In contrast, brindle flakes are completely nontoxic, edible and safe.

We have a resource that can actively combat a gigantic pollution problem, costs nothing and adds money to our pocket in the form of feed and we’re not capitalizing on it?  “Commercialized industry with your godlike power of overconsumption, I’ve counted on you for so long, why are you failing me now?”  We have several billion a year of lost profits…how much more can we honestly lose before this choice becomes obvious?  Imagine a worst case scenario, let’s say you have your maggot camps ridding your plants of sludge and suddenly disaster happens, storm, fire, earthquake and your maggot farm gets destroyed releasing them onto society:

What do maggots do?  They eat dead things.

What will they pollute?  Nothing.  They are a noninvasive, harmless, if disgusting bug which if it somehow runs out of dead things to eat… well, they die.

How could the cost be managed to replace such a complex system of pollution management?  Really?  They’re one of the most common insects in the world, they repopulate very quickly and I don’t think anyone would miss them if you took a few million away.  Not a big money drain.

There exists this resource so great and simple as to be responsible for ridding industry of its most noisome problem and adding a huge profit.  Grain that could be used to feed people, turned into biodiesel, traded overseas, used more profitably than it is, it is being wasted.  So why not accept a godsend boon when one exists and use it?  So bite the bullet and let the era of the bug feed industry thrive.

__________

Works Cited

Courtright, G. (2014). EnviroFlight. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from EnviroFlight: http://www.enviroflight.net/our-process/

EPA. (2011). EPA. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from EPA Major Crops Grown in the United States: http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/cropmajor.html

EWG. (2014). Environmental Working Group. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from Environmental Working Group: http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/interactive-graphic/meat-processorsslaughterhouses/

Forman, L. (2002, March). USDA. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from USDA: http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/761260/sb974-4_1_.pdf

Grace. (2014). GRACE Communications Foundation. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from GRACE Communications Foundation: http://www.sustainabletable.org/279/food-processing-slaughterhouses

Johnson, P. (2013). National Corn Growers Association. Retrieved 11 10, 2014, from NCGA: http://www.ncga.com/upload/files/documents/pdf/WOC%202013.pdf

W, H. (2007). Concentration of agricultural market. Missouri: University of Missouri, Department of Rural Sociology.