Amid Wave of Bioinspiration, San Diego Zoo Creates Innovation Center

8/29/12Follow @bvbigelow

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things we can do on this planet is to look at nature for answers,” he says. “The genius of nature has solved every problem for the past 3.8 billion years.”

Although Stambaugh had some difficulties at Maxim, Connect CEO Duane Roth describes him as “a respected biotech CEO/leader.” In an email, Roth writes that Stambaugh “has the background and experience needed to lead this effort,” which could become a “substantial and unique addition” to San Diego’s innovation economy.

To develop its business plan for the bioinspiration center, the zoo joined Connect’s Springboard program, which helps train local innovators and entrepreneurs.

“We brought Larry into the program as a mentor to develop the business strategy for the center,” Ruprecht von Buttlar, Connect’s vice president for business creation and development, told me by email earlier this week. By selecting Stambaugh, Buttlar says the zoo has “recruited a leader who can make the center a reality and thus create innovative and sustainable technologies from the Zoo’s vast knowledge about plants and animals.”

As an initiative, biomimicry offers lessons for many disciplines—from adhesives inspired by the microscopic toe hairs of geckos to nano-scale structures inspired by insect eyes. The zoo also has made good use of San Diego’s resources in creating the Centre for Bioinspiration, which is an exciting new venture. But the challenges are enormous. Technology transfer can be a difficult and drawn-out process—even at renowned scientific institutions—and the cross-disciplinary nature of biomimcry will only make things more complicated. So it’s hard to see how Stambaugh and the zoo will be able to innovate “quicker, faster, and better.”

Nevertheless, some local cleantech leaders say these are auspicious days, and the zoo’s new biomimicry center is only the beginning of far bigger things to come.

“We need to have a more multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving,” says Jacques Chirazi, the cleantech program manager for the city of San Diego. “We need to train a new generation of entrepreneurs, as well as a new generation of professors, to take that multi-disciplinary approach.”

Chirazi and others envision a new business model that uses biomimicry as a way to combine environmental and business interests. Instead of achieving environmental goals through regulation, subsidies, and altruism, proponents say this new, holistic model could use biomimicry to develop materials and processes that are both sustainable and profitable. By studying nature, they maintain it’s possible to bridge the gap between business and environmental goals, using what the Aspen Institute’s Amory Lovins calls “natural capitalism” to find ways to optimize efficiencies and reduce costs—and creating what Harvard’s Michael Porter describes as “shared value”

To realize such ideas, the zoo joined with city officials a couple of years ago to form a biomimicry-focused consortium called BRIDGE (Biomimicry Business, Research, Innovation, Design, Governance, and Education). The collaboration includes the zoo, Connect, the City of San Diego, and four local universities—UC San Diego, San Diego State University, University of San Diego, and Point Loma Nazarene University.

The biggest clue to the consortium’s work may be an economic study done in 2010 at Point Loma Nazarene University, which estimates that establishing a “bioinspiration hub” in San Diego could add $325 million to San Diego’s gross regional product—along with 2,100 new jobs—over the next 15 years.

“It’s an exciting time,” Chirazi says. “I think we have a perfect nexus here in San Diego.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • Christine

    I just read the article in the UT today(9/3/12) about the biomimitry center. I could not help but think of homeopathy and how this has used nature’s plants and animals to develop remedies for illnesses for 300 years! I hope that this field will be intensely studied as part of the center.
    What a wonderful way to expand upon Hahnemann’s work to help with the diseases we face today.
    There are several local people who practice different forms of homeopathy that would be a great resource for this porject