Breaking Down Barriers:
A design team from Mexico transforms a biomimicry challenge win into a thriving new interdisciplinary consultancy.
Months earlier, they had designed an innovative way to collect water and dew, inspired by the bromeliad plant and the structure of a spider web. They submitted their design to the 2013 Biomimicry Student Design Challenge and were invited to travel to Boston to pitch their idea to a group of biomimicry experts and judges.
“It was terrifying,” said Vega, “because we knew that we needed to speak in English to present to other people. We were excited about the idea, but also afraid of making people understand us, believe in us.”
Since some members of the team didn’t speak fluent English, Vega and her team decided to make their mark visually, so they quickly ran to the supermarket to buy materials to make small prototypes of their design. ”We spent the whole day before the final, drawing on cardboard to make all these designs and prototypes,” said Vega. “I don’t know how we made it, but we were trying very hard.”
Their work paid off when their design, the Chaac-ha Water System, won the 2013 People’s Choice award. After this win, the team re-formed to compete in the 2014 Biomimicry Student Design Challenge, in which it tied for first place. Now, three years after they met for the first time, members of these two winning teams have launched a brand-new venture: a biomimicry design firm based in the Yucatán called Biofractal.
“We all had the idea of creating something that is not only for money, but something that really is changing the world and changing the perspective of society,” said team member and Biofractal co-founder Ivan Toto. “Since we had all these backgrounds in biomimicry, sustainable design, sustainable development, and the skills of all the people that were on our team, we decided to create this kind of enterprise.”
Three years ago, none of the Biofractal team members could have imagined they would join up to start a biomimicry consultancy. At that time, no one in the group knew each other, or had even heard of biomimicry before. Vega, who was studying architecture at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, heard about a biomimicry course taught by guest instructors and thought, “Why not?” The course instructors, from the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City, had originally been trained in biomimicry through the Biomimicry Institute’s biomimicry fellows program. After the course, faculty members from Vega’s university gathered a group of students who were interested in joining a team to compete in the 2012-2013 Biomimicry Student Design Challenge on water.
“We didn’t know each other at the beginning so it was really hard,” said Vega. “We were from different backgrounds–architecture and biology–and they are not really the same. Even the language was hard to understand.”
The team approached the water challenge by first looking for solutions to a big problem in their warm and humid home region: water shortages. “We wanted to have an answer for this problem, for the problem that we have lived, that we know,” Vega said.
Inspired by the way bromeliads collect water and the structural characteristics of spider webs, the team created a dew and water collector. Their design, Chaac-ha (which means ‘god of rain and water’ in the Mayan tradition) consists of three parts: a bamboo frame, a collector, and a water tank. It can direct and collect 2.5 liters of dew per night and, if it rains, up to 50 liters.
After the People’s Choice Award win, the team added additional members and submitted a brand-new design for the 2013-2014 student challenge on transportation. The team’s first-place design, called Mocan, emulated the way millipedes and snakes move to create an environmentally-friendly, affordable, non-motorized vehicle.
After two big wins, the local community began to take notice. The team was interviewed on the radio and on the local news, and the university did a big announcement. “It was a big step for the university,” said Vega. “Because of what we have done, [the university] is now opening doors for new generations.” After the second win, the university started to expand biomimicry programming and encourage more teams to enter in the 2015 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge in food systems.
The most important part of the challenge is how it creates this kind of environment for testing your ideas. That helped to create the business model that we are now trying to run.Ivan Toto
The experience of participating in the competition not only opened new doors for students at the university, it pointed the team members in a whole new direction for their careers. Biofractal, a biomimicry design firm, launched this year with four members of the challenge team among its co-founders. Toto and Vega credit the challenge for preparing them for their new venture.
“The most important part of the challenge is how it creates this kind of environment for testing your ideas,” said Toto. “That helped to create the business model that we are now trying to run.” Vega said that the challenge gave the team practice for how to explain and present their ideas to the public. “We learned from being in front of the people explaining our products to them, our ideas, making them believe in us,” she said.
The Biofractal founders are eager to share a biomimicry design approach with their community. “We need this to work, we want this to work, and we believe in our business plan for Biofractal,” said Vega.
Toto sees biomimicry as a way to break barriers, especially by creating interdisciplinary collaborations that can lead to brand-new ideas. “What’s remarkable about biomimicry is how, through this kind of methodology, we are breaking walls,” he said. “In the past, talking about an engineer working with a psychologist in our university would be crazy, and now it’s possible.”
“The fact is that we need to do something for our environment, for our society, and [the] world, and most of us didn’t want to work on things in the classic way,” said Toto. “We are trying to create new solutions. We are breaking those old kinds of thinking.”
Learn more about the team’s winning design of the Chaac-ha water collection system on AskNature.