Bringing Biomimicry to Market: Impact Investing Inspired by Nature

By Marta Maretich @maximpactdotcom

Biomimicry has captured the world’s imagination. From the moment Janine Benyus; seminal book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature appeared in 2002, hopes have been high for this new approach to design and engineering. Elegant, poetical and paradigm-changing, biomimicry and its sibling discipline, bio-inspired design, spoke to our hopes for harnessing the elegant solutions of nature for a more sustainable future.

Twelve years on, where are biomimicry and bio-inspired design today? And what opportunities are there for impact investors looking for ways to place capital in innovative, green and sustainable nature-based solutions?

Biomimicry success stories

There have been some notable successes in bio-inspired products in recent years. Self-cleaning paint incorporating the lotus effect; the ability of the structure of the lotus leaf to repel dirt; came onto the market as early as 1999. Today world wide annual sales of products using the lotus effect are now over $100 million with Degussa, Ferro and Sto some of the companies reaping the benefits.

Another example is the sharkskin swimsuit, famously banned from competition for giving unfair advantages to swimmers with its scale-mimicking technology. Calera, a company that specializes in converting carbon dioxide into green “reactive cements” to replace traditional cement has made its name with a bio-inspired process for capturing CO2. The high tech industry is turning out products incorporating bits of bio-inspired technology, too, especially in the fields of robotics and computer science. But the best-known, and most commercially successful biomimetic design of all time must be Velcro, the fastening system based on the structure of the cockleburr that is now incorporated into countless products including clothing, medical equipment and packaging worldwide.

These successes continue to inspire a generation of scientists. Research and development in this area have skyrocketed over the last ten years with the number of peer-reviewed papers now reaching about 3000 annually. According to the Da Vinci Index, a database tracking scholarly activity, interest in biomimicry has increased tenfold since the millennium. Patents for biometric innovations are also up: 67 were issued in 2012 as compared to just 3 in 2000. Biomimetic, biometric and bio-inspired research activity is buzzing in labs and universities around the world. AskNature, a database of projects under investigation shows the depth and breadth of bio-inspired research.

The successes of bio-inspired products and processes is also motivating product developers, entrepreneurs and major corporations to find ways to make something of the findings coming out of the science. Today proponents can be found in many places in the commercial world, including some surprising ones such as the Los Angeles Auto show with its biomimicry and mobility design challenge.

Market challenges

There have certainly been breakthroughs in finding applications for bio-inspired products and enthusiasm for the concept remains high. Yet even fans of biomimicry admit there haven’t been as many commercial successes as they’d like. This is because there are still significant challenges in bringing biomimicry to market, as green and sustainable business blogger Joel Makower has identified. Part of the problem is that bio-inspired innovations often arise in laboratories a long way from the marketplace (there’s a similar problem in cleantech). Their promises are often conceptual and can take years or even decades to find a viable commercial use.

Even the most brilliant ideas take a while to catch on, too; and they often require a champion. As Zygote Quarterly editor Tom McKeag points out in this blogpost, biomimicry’s greatest success stories, Lotusan and Velcro were far from overnight successes and only made it to prominence “because of the long and dogged efforts” of the individuals who discovered them. Similarly, despite ten years of effort and huge latent potential, materials like spider silk and adhesives materials inspired by gecko feet have so far failed to find their way to market.

This has led to some frustration from mainstream investors who were attracted to the high-tech mystique of biomimicry and expected it to produce quick financial results. As ethical finance thought leader Hazel Henderson commented in a recent interview, “the term “biomimicry” is sufficiently mysterious and obscure that: a) they’ve never heard of it and they don’t know anything about it, and b) it’s sort of intriguing because of the fact that a lot of corporations see this as the leading edge of innovation.” She went on to predict that, “a lot of trustees and pension fund beneficiaries are going to be knocking on the door of asset managers in institutional endowments and saying: “Hey, why aren’t we investing in biomimicry-type companies?”

Impact investors are starting to ask the same question. But, as Henderson implies, it may not be the right one.

Tapping into the ecosystem

Biomimicry and bio-inspired design is best thought of as a methodology and a framework for innovating. This means it’s not necessarily about individual businesses or single products or even technologies. Rather, it’s about a whole new approach to the process of development that depends on a rich ecosystem of research, learning, innovation and cross-sector collaboration.

To successfully engage with the field, impact investors need to look deeper into this ecosystem and ask themselves better questions: What is the best way for impact investors to put their money into beneficial bio-innovation? What role can impact finance play in speeding the process of bringing bio-inspired products and technologies to the marketplace?

New ways of thinking about investing in this sector are already taking shape. To address the oversimplified attitude toward biomimicry investing, Henderson and Benyus have collaborated on a set of criteria for identifying, working with and investing in companies that adhere to ethical principles in biomimicry finance. The approach recognizes that bio-inspired products and processes aren’t necessarily sustainable or socially beneficial; not all funds touting bio-based financial products operate according to green principles. Based on Henderson’s Life Principles, the criteria are aimed at helping investors find finance companies that place capital in biomimicry-related ventures in ethical ways.

Then there are the organizations actively building links between biomimicry research and the market. The Centre for Bioinspiration is a California-based for-profit enterprise that works directly with businesses to incorporate bio-inspired and biomimetic approaches into their products. It supports research into the economic landscape for biomimicry, tracking the growth and development of the sector. It also hosts an annual conference that focuses on the link between bio-technologies and products and the marketplace. This work is helping ease the transition from lab to market for new technologies and products, while it offers companies practical ways to incorporate bio-inspiration into product design.

Biomimicry 3.8, a social enterprise and nonprofit hybrid—and a certified BCorp—has proven that the concept of biomimicry is itself a marketable commodity. Founded by Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, Biomimicry 3.8 this cross-sectoral venture has developed diverse revenue streams through delivering consulting services to businesses, publicly-funded institutions and governments. At the same time, it pursues its core mission of propagating biomimicry by providing thought leadership for the industry, keeping an index of current research projects, mapping the biomimicry community and acting as an information hub for professionals and the public. It provides materials and training for teachers along with resources like the Biomimicry Design Lens, a framework for incorporating nature’s processes into design, available as a free download.

Biomimicry 3.8’s work is helping keep the issue of bio-inspired innovation on the front burner for researchers, commercial industries and the public while the industry matures. In this way, it acts as a champion for the young bio sector in a way that could hold lessons for other young sectors such as impact investing.

Partly because of this work, biomimicry and bio-inspiration continues to grip the popular imagination and inspire books, reports, blogs, magazines and documentaries (many of them available through the Newsstand). Zygote Quarterly, edited by Tom McKeag is a prize-winning online magazine that offers cutting edge information on biomimicry research in a beautifully designed format. The Nature of Business by Giles Hutchins applies the principles of biomimicry to a new business paradigm, as does Katherine Collins; The Nature of Investing. The popular Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart brings biomimetism into the debate about recycling.

More than 100 years after the invention of Velcro, the taste for biomimicry is keener than ever, thanks to its devoted proponents and the innovations that have made it out of the labs and into the public arena. More than a trend, biomimicry is a movement and a framework for innovation and change. Impact investors who want to join this movement have the opportunity to connect with it in its early stages and support it as it grows.

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