Over the past few years, the San Diego Zoo has generated a new revenue stream by developing a variety of educational and business programs focused on biomimicry, a school of thought often described as “innovation inspired by nature.”
Using its in-house expertise in conservation, zoology, botany, and other fields, the zoo has organized conferences, developed course materials, and hosted workshops to show how biological designs, processes, and materials can be applied to transform industry and commerce. In its own imitation of nature, the zoo also has worked to expand the ecosystem of biomimicry-focused businesses and research institutions. The zoo even commissioned a report two years ago that says biomimicry could generate as much as $300 billion annually to the U.S. economy by 2025.
Now San Diego Zoo Global, the umbrella organization that operates the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, has established a new “Centre for Bioinspiration,” with the idea of using biomimicry to inspire a cornucopia of innovation. The core mission is with a product incubator that is intended to help advance biologically inspired products that arise both inside and outside the zoo.
Technologies emerging from the incubator also would help to seed the innovation economy in San Diego and elsewhere. The zoo offers plenty of examples, including:
—Mirasol display technology under development since the mid-1990s, and now under auspices of San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), generates colors for mobile phone displays and e-book readers by mimicking the interference of reflected light by microscopic scales on the iridescent surface of the morpho butterfly’s wings.
—In the life sciences, San Diego’s Biomatrica has developed DNA and RNA preservation technology based on anhydrobiosis, a dehydration process that occurs in nature with brine shrimp and other organisms.
—WhalePower, a Toronto-based wind power company, designed its turbine blades based on the tubercles (bumps) on the fins of humpback whales. Co-founder and biologist Frank Fish of West Chester, PA, determined that the bumps reduce drag, enabling the blades to turn at lower wind speeds.
To head its new biomimicry center, the zoo named Larry Stambaugh, 65, a local corporate leader who led San Diego-based Maxim Pharmaceuticals, a once-prominent drug developer that was sold amid some acrimony at the end of 2005.
Stambaugh, who told me he’s spent years in-licensing and out-licensing technologies, says the incubator’s prime directive is moving bio-inspired innovations toward commercialization.
“Some ideas would be advanced to a working model or proof of principle, and then licensed,” Stambaugh says. “Sometimes, companies would come to us and we’ll jointly develop the idea. We have the know-how among our scientists at the zoo.”
Stambaugh says the goal is to make the process of innovation development work quicker, faster, and better. “One of the most profound 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.”
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