Creating a Biomimicry Hub in NE Ohio

After four years and countless volunteer hours, Great Lakes Biomimicry has created a biomimicry hot spot in the region, powered by educational partnerships.


An April 2014 City Club panel with (from left to right) Rebecca Bagley, Peter Niewiarowski, Ven Ochaya, and Tom Tyrrell.

Tom Tyrrell and Don Knechtges thought big right from the start.

When the two veteran entrepreneurs and environmentalists teamed up to foster biomimicry-based regional economic development in northeastern Ohio, they began with one key approach: education.

“We felt that what no one else in the world was doing was using education as a fulcrum to move towards economic development,” said Tyrrell, founder of Great Lakes Biomimicry.

The idea was a clear one: develop a cadre of highly-trained biomimicry professionals and embed them in local corporations and educational institutions to spread the practice of biomimicry from the inside.

To train these professionals, Tyrrell, Knechtges, and University of Akron professor Dr. Peter Niewiarowski worked to develop a biomimicry PhD program within the University of Akron’s Integrated Biosciences program. The fellows in this program each work with a corporate sponsor or local STEM school for the duration of their five-year PhD program. They spend 20 hours a week immersed in the organization, working to incorporate biomimicry not just into one-off projects, but into the organization’s underlying culture.

“Our whole focus is process,” said Tyrrell. “If we go out to a company and help them solve a problem, they don’t learn. If we embed biomimicry in their company, then they can take it and run with it.”

One of Tyrrell’s first calls was to Joe Kanfer, CEO of GOJO, the makers of PURELL® Advanced Hand Sanitizer. “He is the most significant player in environmental awareness that I know. He got [biomimicry] like that and became an integral part of the process,” said Tyrrell.

GOJO was one of three initial companies to come on board, hosting biomimicry PhD fellow Emily Kennedy in Fall 2012.

Kennedy, Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens, and Bill Hsiung were the first three biomimicry fellows to join the program at the University of Akron. Fecheyr-Lippens is working with Parker Hannifin, one of the largest companies in the world in motion control technologies. Hsuing is working with Sherwin-Williams, a manufacturer of paints and coatings.

“I wanted to be in a place that is a hub, where other people are as excited about biomimicry as I am,” said Kennedy. “Being in Northeast Ohio, there’s a large network of people who are thinking about biomimicry and innovation this way, and it’s not just individuals – it’s companies, it’s schools. So to be a part of something bigger like that, it really makes you feel that this is the way of the future.”

Being in Northeast Ohio, there’s a large network of people who are thinking about biomimicry and innovation this way, and it’s not just individuals – it’s companies, it’s schools. So to be a part of something bigger like that, it really makes you feel that this is the way of the future.

Emily Kennedy

University of Akron Biomimicry Fellow, GOJO

University of Akron fellows and their sponsors, from left to right: Adam Pierce, GAR Foundation / Working at National Inventor’s Hall of Fame Middle School, Akron; Emily Kennedy, GOJO; Sebastian Englehardt, Ross Environmental Services; Kelly Siman, Nord Family Foundation / Working at schools in Lorain County, Ohio; Bor-Kai Hsiung, Sherwin-Williams; Michael Wilson, Lubrizol; Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens, Parker Hannifin.

Emily Kennedy, Ven Ochaya, and Sally Parker.

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Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens appeared on stage with Balance, Inc. CEO Rene Polin at TEDx Cleveland, to talk about their experience working together on a biomimicry design project.

Since Kennedy has been at GOJO, she has spearheaded multiple biomimicry workshops for the company’s staff. In the spring of 2013, she and GOJO Facilities and Resource Management Director Tom Marting led a cross-disciplinary series of workshops focused on designing more energy-efficient liquid soap or sanitizer dispensers. Kennedy and Marting led the group through a biomimicry design process, where they researched biological models for how organisms in nature distribute liquid.

“There were people in the room who focused on individual components of a dispenser,” said Kennedy. “Taking a biomimicry approach was forcing them to think about the larger system. How can things work together to create a solution? I think that’s because, in nature, everything is part of an ecosystem, so you’re thinking about those connections more when you’re looking at biological models.”

Additional workshops looked at biomimicry approaches to moisturization, preventing abrasion, and relieving pressure on skin. The team looked at a range of biological models including dynamic moisture control in insect cuticles; abrasion resistance in the skin of sand-dwelling reptiles; and cushioning properties of elephant feet to gain further insight and ideas.

As a result of the biomimicry workshops, GOJO has filed six provisional patents. “That’s a lot for four work sessions,” said Marting. “The benefits from our standpoint are that it gives us a whole new generative tool to work with to deliver sustainable innovations. Nature is full of sustainable systems and chemistries to mine for inspiration.”

Marting said that the collaboration between GOJO, the University of Akron, and Great Lakes Biomimicry was key to making this initiative work. “The fellowship program is unique and a big factor in making this process come to life at GOJO. Having Emily working with us as a fellow for a long period of time is essential to allowing us to explore biomimicry and apply it in different projects to understand how we can best apply it to maximize its value,” added Marting.

Knechtges said that these initial successes are driving increased interest in the program. “We have three years of history now and GOJO is one example of the outcomes. There are case studies of success and a clear demonstration of value that the corporations are receiving from their involvement in this program,” said Knechtges. As a result, over the past three years, multiple new companies have come on board, including NASA, and 11 additional fellows have been placed.

“It’s basically like being part of a start-up, which is a huge learning curve and really a great experience,” said fellow Fecheyr-Lippens. “It’s a challenge, but if you get there, you’re so excited you did it successfully.”

Fecheyr-Lippens is working with Parker Hannifin to develop industrial materials that resist solar degradation that are inspired by UV-protective qualities of eggshells. She also had the opportunity to appear on stage with Balance, Inc. CEO Rene Polin at TEDx Cleveland, to talk about their experience working together on a biomimicry design project.

After four years and over 25,000 volunteers hours, Tyrrell, Knechtges, and the rest of the Great Lakes Biomimicry team have built the program to impressive heights, and they’re not done yet. They are collaborating with the current corporate partners to develop a consortium that will work together to apply biomimicry to regional issues, and are looking to expand this pool to include companies outside the region.

“What we’re trying to get done here is probably way beyond our lifetimes,” said Knechtges. “The future can’t be driven by what’s happened in the past. If we don’t do it now, it never will be done.”

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