Biomimicry for Technology-Push (vs. Market-Pull) Innovation

Market-pull innovation is driven by customer needs. Demand for a solution to a problem triggers its development. For example, the digital camera was invented because customers grew impatient waiting for film to be developed, and expressed desire to be able to view their photos instantaneously. The philosophy behind a market-pull innovation strategy is encapsulated in the familiar adage, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Problem-driven biomimicry, comprising the following five iterative steps, can support market-pull innovation:

[1] Define the problem (customer need)

[2] Specify desired functions

[3] Identify biological models exemplifying desired functions

[4] Extract design principles embodied by biological models

[5]  Ideate biomimetic solutions using design principles as stimulus

Technology-push innovation is driven by advances in technology. A new product is enabled by a technological breakthrough. Customers have never before imagined a product of the sort. The developers ‘push’ the product to market, in hopes that visibility will generate need. For example, invention of compact, lightweight headphones enabled development of the Sony Walkman personal stereo. Customers hadn’t demanded a way to listen to music on the go; rather, the product was ‘pushed’ onto society, and the need followed. A technology-push innovation strategy assumes a reverse philosophical standpoint, where “invention is the mother of necessity.” In my experience, the following approach, which I will term “technology-driven biomimicry,” can support technology-push innovation:   

[1] Identify an analog of the breakthrough technology in a biological system

[2] Determine the function of the analog in the biological system

[3] Research whether said function maps to a customer need

[4] If not, repeat steps 1-3; If yes, this is a potential target application

What follows is a concrete example of how this approach played out in my work with EP Technologies, a GOJO spin-off pushing non-thermal plasma technology. Plasma is a partially ionized gas composed of positively charged ions and negatively charged free electrons in proportions resulting in essentially no overall electric charge. Thermal plasma is near fully ionized, and consists of hot electrons, hot ions, and hot neutrals.  In non-thermal plasma, only a small fraction (e.g. 1%) of gas molecules is ionized.  The ions and neutrals are near room temperature; only the electrons are hot.  Non-thermal plasmas can be applied to surfaces (including human tissue) without causing thermal or chemical damage. Chemically, the hot electrons in the non-thermal plasma disassociate molecular gases like oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, or helium, creating reactive oxygen species (ROS) [1] that interact with the treated surface. Thus, we posed the question: “What is the function of ROS in biology?” We discovered that in the human body, ROS are released to recruit additional platelets to sites of injury to accelerate blood clotting [2]. There is a customer need for blood clotting technology in medical center wound care units [3], so blood clotting was confirmed as a potential target application [4] for EP Technologies’s non-thermal plasma technology.

I recommend entrepreneurs leading corporate and university spin-offs (where a technology-push innovation strategy is especially common) experiment with this approach. Please report back on its effectiveness in your context!

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