Category: Entrepreneurship

Reflections from a guinea pig

I’m writing this blogpost, which will be my last on germiNature, still astonished that I defended my PhD work last week. Five years ago I embarked on this unknown journey as one of the three guinea pigs of this new PhD program in Biomimicry. A collaborative idea turning into a reality; Biomimicry being our mission and the glue for bringing people from all over the world together.

The desired outcome for a PhD student is being able to impact the field of study and contribute to its further development. Emily, Bill and I are publishing our dissertations in a couple of months, and it will be interesting to see how each of us completed the same goal with a different approach. But before jumping into a meta-analysis, I should first reflect on my outcomes.

drops-of-leaves-4-2

I have to admit that jumping is definitely a verb that describes me well. I don’t like to stay in the same place for too long. I started with the intention to take on a Biomimicry project from start to finish:

  1. Finding & understanding an interesting biological observation
  2. Abstracting biological principles into more general design principles
  3. Brainstorming and designing: Developing a biomimetic design
  4. Turning it into a commercial product

But it ended up quite differently…

My first 2, almost 3 years I spent on the first step, focusing on understanding UV reflection of avian eggshells. Many of my research efforts turned into dead ends. It wasn’t until I focused specifically on a fairly easy to distinguish characteristic of these eggshells (i.e. the cuticle, which is the outermost layer made from non-crystalized calcium carbonate and organic components) that I made advancements in biological understanding. The cuticle is at least one more factor that contributes to differences in UV coloration.

Being the kind of jumpy person that I am, and because of this slow and tedious process, I started losing my motivation and interest in really wanting to dig deeper and find the ultimate answers. I started taking on other projects, which were fueling me again to continue pursuing my PhD. These projects allowed me to also experience the other steps involved in a biomimicry process.

One project was to test if eggshells can be used to provide UV protection since chicken eggshells showed high reflectance in the same region of terrestrial solar radiation that is most harmful to biological (e.g. our skin) and synthetic polymers (e.g. building materials, paint). Our results, recently published in the journal Sustainability, showed that eggshell pieces indeed provide effective and durable photo-protection. However, future research is needed to investigate if eggshells in a more industrial format (e.g. ground into particles) will also provide high photo-protection. It’s important to note that turning a waste product (we create tons of eggshell waste per day) into a useful product is considered bio-utilization and not biomimicry. Not that one is necessarily better than the other, yet, making that distinction is important for identifying when one should consider pursuing the development of a mimic rather than using a natural product. In this case, since waste eggshells are readily available and are causing environmental issues (eggshell waste attracts rats to landfills), it makes sense to use it rather than a mimic.

Another project was to use natural models to inspire a biomimetic building envelope that reduces energy usage, especially by optimizing thermoregulation (step 3). Being exposed to the architectural design world was a real mind-boggler. Why don’t architects understand my explanation of the aestivation mechanism of the African reed frog? How would they implement this? What is an adaptive thermal comfort model and what does heat extraction mean? How will the biomimetic building envelope save energy?
We are currently reshaping our manuscript so that it will speak to a broad range of readers, and clearly explain how we used our natural models as design inspiration. Hope to share it soon!

During my PhD I discovered the fascinating aspects of entrepreneurship. I learned to identify customers’ needs and do market research. If nobody wants or needs your (biomimicry) product, no need to invest so much time and money in developing it. I had the exciting experience of co-founding two startups, one biomimicry-related and one PhD-problem related:

Hedgemon is an R&D startup, which is using the cleverness of the design of hedgehog spines to develop a new cushioning material.

Jaswig designs, manufactures, and sells height-adjustable and sustainable standing desks, which alleviates your back/neck aches from sitting too many hours behind your computer.

natures-beauty-42Besides all the joy of being involved in a startup, I also experienced a lot of loss in personal productivity and team collaboration due to misunderstandings or lack of communication. But frustrations = opportunity (yes, I’ve developed a business mindset)! I’m currently on a mission to learn from nature how we can communicate more effectively. It will need more digging and testing in real-life business settings before reaching publishable outcomes, but in the meantime you can read my attained insights on my blog “How nature says it”.

One more month to synthesize all of this into a dissertation document… Almost there! I hope that by sharing my experiences, challenges, concerns and research results I can show how formal education facilitates the development and practical use of biomimicry. Bill, Emily and I are the first batch of graduating Biomimicry Fellows, with many more to come! Curious to see what they will work on and how their PhD track unrolls.

And I guess this is a goodbye to you, readers of Germinature. Hope to have sparked some new ideas or questions, and I’m always happy to keep the conversation going! Reach out to me: daphne{at}fecheyr{dot}be. Thanks for reading.

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:

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5 Nature Lessons About Being an Entrepreneur

Last week I had the pleasure to submerge myself in the rainy, flat, yet beautiful landscapes of the Netherlands.

Dunes of Loon and Drunen National Park, Netherlands

Together with about 25 others we spend a week to learn more about how Biomimicry Thinking can be applied to Social Innovation, a workshop given by Toby Herzlich and Dayna Baumeister. My personal interest in entrepreneurship made me question: “What can we learn from nature about being an entrepreneur?”

Yes, nature has entrepreneurs too, they are called pioneer species. Fireweed, a pink flower that appears as first after a huge forest fire, is one example. They are the species that are the first colonizers of harsh environments and are the drivers for ecological successions that ultimately lead to a more biodiverse and stable ecosystem.

1. You should not strive for a perfectly balanced Work/Life

Almost daily a new article appears in which tips are exposed to obtain a healthy work/life balance. Well, if we follow nature’s advice, we could keep trying to find it, but in nature there is no such thing as a “balanced” state. Although the overall appearance might seem in balance, the truth is that this is the result of a dynamic non-equilibrium or a constant flow of states to come as close as possible to equilibrium. One of the main reasons: (natural) disturbances will occur, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.

So, what is the best way to cope with this “stress” of having to deal with (unexpected) disturbances that throw you in unbalance? One is most resilient when being a “generalist” rather than a “specialist”; or in other words: don’t try to be extremely good at one specific thing.

Translating this to ourselves: If work becomes so dominant that you develop your personal skills almost only in your field of work (e.g. becoming extremely productive at managing your work, or being an uber smart coder — usually “hard” skills), you will have a very hard time to enjoy your non-work life (e.g. spending a relax time with your family — usually “soft” skills). Nature’s advice is to develop both your hard and soft skills so that you more easily can adapt to either your work-self or your life-self.

By the way: just the fact that we call them “work” and “life” is already a sign that something is totally wrong. You should be alive at work.

2. As a pioneer you usually grow fast and die young

Perhaps the most shocking news from nature: as a pioneer you only have a very temporary role to play. You are the one to appear as first since you are able to withstand those harsh conditions that others can’t. You can withstand the hard winds, the low nutritious soil, or the high currents. Even better, you thrive in them, making you grow fast and reproduce in high amounts. Together with your peers of pioneers you will change the conditions of your environment, you are making them more accessible for others to come and stay. But as soon as they have arrived, your role is to leave space for them, and find a new, underdeveloped area.

Seems like there is a good reason why you see so many serial entrepreneurs. If you are good at seeing new business opportunities and making them viable, perhaps your role should be just that. Why stay at one place and try to compete with the next generation (e.g. managers, CEO’s)? Can you accept that others are better at growing your business idea?
If so, you might have found your best talent and will enjoy to plant many new seeds and let them be grown by others.

3. Your pioneering role is to create conditions for the next generation

As a pioneer you are the first to colonize, but you are not there to stay. Being able to thrive in harsh conditions your job is to fix the sand or soil, to make nutrients more accessible, to enrich the soil, to create shelters from hard winds, etc. Suddenly other species will find out that the harsh conditions changed, and became viable to them. They will start settling and as they are better in other things than you, for example they need less resources or they are better at making friends (called mutualistic relationships in nature), they will take over. The end stage of ecological successions is a stable, biodiverse ecosystem, like the redwood forest and coral reefs.
Change in nature is accepted as a good thing.

4. You have two different ways to impact your environment

Apparently there are two ways a pioneer can change its environment:
i) change the environment directly; e.g. a beaver that builds dams will cause changes in the river flow,
ii) change itself, which indirectly affects the environment; e.g. coral needs CO2 to grow, taking it from the sea water thus creating a CO2-poor environment around the corals.

How can we apply this to ourselves?
As an entrepreneur you can introduce a new product into the world, which creates an entire new market. Think cars, mobile industry, and computers.
Or you can change yourself, affecting your environment. Examples that come to mind are: Not believing that the world is flat, literally throw our world upside-down. Or the fact that industry is now becoming more and more circular thanks to those thought-leaders that couldn’t accept our linear thinking and realized that “waste” doesn’t exist.

In both cases, what you are doing is preparing the environment to attract followers that usually will take over and be the ones to make the actual long-lasting change. If your startup doesn’t make it into a real company, that doesn’t mean you failed. On the contrary: you set a new stage for others that are perhaps better at running a big company, but you sure made a difference!

5. You should know what kind of messages you are sending and to whom

You come home after a long day, are hangry and your partner is in the sofa watching a TV show. You mumble to yourself “pfff why haven’t you made dinner yet!” and start cooking with a grumpy face. After 10 mins you are so angry and yell, “HEY, I’m home! Why haven’t you made dinner yet? I’m starving!”. Your partner stands up from the sofa, and says: “I made dinner for us, it’s in the oven and the table is set outside.”

Familiar? What happens is that you are sending messages that aren’t perceived by the other. Although you might think your partner heard you mumbling, he probably hasn’t. As he is watching an interesting TV show he didn’t even noticed that you were so hungry. He already knew dinner would be ready in 15 min but didn’t realize he should have told you.

There are many great examples in nature where a specific message is perfectly aligned between the sender and the receiver. Flowers not only send out a yummy smell to attract bees, they also have a beautiful UV pattern that shows them the way to their nectar. We as humans don’t see UV so these patterns/message would be totally useless if it were to guide us.

Next time your message isn’t being acted upon, ask yourself: “Who is my receiver, and which message is the most clear for them to understand what I need?”

Further Readings — Inspiring books

  1. The Nature of Business: Redesigning for Resilience — Giles Hutchins
  2. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature — Janine Benyus
  3. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World— Brian Walker PhD
  4. Business Ecology: Giving your Organization the Natural Edge — Joseph M Abe
  5. All I Need To Know About Business, I Learned From a Duck — Tom Porter

 

This post was originally posted on Medium.com