Innovators have always drawn inspiration from nature. When Da Vinci saw twirling maple tree seeds, he sketched the earliest design of a helicopter, 450 years before the first one took flight. Now the process of turning nature into technology has a name: biomimicry. Copying nature has given us painless needles modeled on mosquitos, aerodynamic trains that copy kingfishers, and butterfly inspired paint without pigments. More and more innovators are beginning to grasp how nature inspires design and guides entrepreneurship. Biomimicry has spawned hundreds of startups, especially sustainability focused ones. In this article, the Entrepreneurship Director of the Biomimicry Institute, Jared Yarnall-Schane explains how the three guiding principles of biomimicry are unlocking the treasure trove of nature for entrepreneurs.
The Three Seeds of Biomimicry
The “Three Seeds” of Biomimicry are the ways entrepreneurs and innovators can draw on nature for inspiration and guidance. The “Three Seeds” are:
- Emulate — At its core, Jared explains, biomimicry asks “how can we learn from and mimic what’s happening in nature?”. By looking at nature, we can find problems that are analogous to our own, and copy the solutions 3.8 billion years of evolution have eloquently refined.
- Ethos — Biomimicry is rooted in the balance of nature, where waste is simply the start of another process, and checks and balances ensure that no resource is used in excess. In Jared’s words: “It’s naturally circular, it’s naturally regenerative—so it’s naturally sustainable.”
- Reconnect — Jared emphasizes that “this is just an incredibly important one.” Not only does time spent observing nature inspire entrepreneurs, it also connects them with the natural world and each other “so that they can start off on this path” of sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Benefits of Biomimicry: A Case Study
Cypris Materials was one of Jared’s many examples of a biomimicry startup benefitting from the three seeds.
The Berkeley, California based startup is mixing things up in the world of paint – literally. Instead of creating color with thousands of dyes and pigments, Cypris Materials’ mixes just two white powders to create vibrant paints and coatings in every color imaginable. The trick is in the nano-scale structure of the powders, which is manipulated so the powders only reflect certain wavelengths of light. It’s called “structural color”, and if you’ve ever marveled at the vivacious blues of a kingfisher’s plumage or the glittering emeralds of a peacock’s train then you’ve seen just how stunning these colors can get.
Emulating these natural examples of structural color held the key to Cypris Material’s technical innovation. A team of five doctors and professors, including a Nobel prize winning researcher, founded Cypris Materials in 2019 after studying how self-assembling materials could be used to produce structural color, the same natural phenomenon that produces the brilliant green and blue colorations on butterflies and peacocks. The company is working on structural color for everything from more vivid nail polish to making self-driving cars more visible to each other in low-light conditions (by reflecting back more of the specific wavelengths of light their sensors detect).
Beyond nature-inspired technical innovation, the ethos of biomimicry underpins much of the unique value Cypris Materials offers. Kingfishers and peacocks produce dazzling displays of structural color using non-toxic, energy-efficient organic chemistry. This is “huge”, according to Jared, because by copying nature “Cypris Materials is also doing this at ambient conditions.” Gone are the energy and resource intensive processes required to produce inorganic pigments (and even organic dyes), which are often toxic to the environment once they’ve been produced. By copying nature, the ethos behind Cypris Materials is less resource intensive and less damaging to the environment.
Cypris Materials is just one example of how emulation and the ethos of biomimicry are helping entrepreneurs innovate new technologies in a sustainable way. Other examples range from robots exploring leaky water-pipes to nature-based protection for crumbling coastlines. But as Jared made clear, these startups are only born when founders connect with nature – and each other.
Reconnecting Entrepreneurs with Nature (And Each Other)
Time in nature inspires more than just the technical side of innovation – it cuts to the core of the sustainability mission of today’s principled entrepreneurs. For Jared, the experience of nature must be visceral. “We can talk all day about solving major sustainability problems or helping to stop deforestation,” but he’s seen first-hand how entrepreneurs can shift their perspective on a deeper level by spending time in nature.
In his role at the Biomimicry Institute, Jared has taken entrepreneurs into the primary forests of Panama. By taking would-be founders out of the urban environment and showing them degraded farmland, secondary forest and the depths of primary forest, “you could see this transformation happening in their understanding.”
Beyond deepening their appreciation for the natural world, time together in nature connects startup founders to each other. The challenges of being out in nature forges and tempers relationships that can develop into business partnerships. Campfire conversations allow them to think big about the global challenges they could grow to tackle.
The three seeds of biomimicry—copying nature, adopting its ethos and reconnecting with the natural world—equip “these entrepreneurs who are doing some of the most important work” to create new businesses in harmony with nature for a better future.
Sam Nattress contributes strategic thinking, entrepreneurial experience, and wordsmithery to startups who are having a positive environmental impact. His work can be followed at samnattress.com.