Turning Ideas into Reality (Emer Natalio)

© Kheng Guan Toh - Fotolia.comOne way to build momentum and create tangible change is by turning good ideas into successful products or services.  Achieving broad market acceptance demonstrates value, can change people's perception and may even influence their behavior for the better.  Are there medium-term opportunities to take bio-inspired design ideas and turn them into business opportunities?


Based on the experience of Swedish Biomimetics 3000® (see the February 2008 newsletter), developing new bio-inspired technologies is an expensive and time-consuming affair.  It is not clear if there are sufficient ‘off-the-shelf’ bio-inspired products or services that entrepreneurs can re-package or combine.  On the other hand, it may be possible to combine existing components in bio-inspired ways to create novel and useful systems. 

An alternative approach may be to assist in the refinement and development of low-cost prototypes that could be entered into competitions.  A significant number of students have graduated from various bio-inspired design courses at institutions such as Georgia Tech, OCAD and the University of Maryland.  What student projects and assignments explored ideas that might have commercial viability?  What ideas have graduates generated since then that could benefit from a boost?

The participants on the January 25th Skype conference call about Turning Ideas Into Reality discussed a wide range of personal goals:

  • framing bio-inspired projects so that they are manageable and meaningful
  • bridging from the classroom environment to practical applications of bio-inspired design
  • building the relationships required to bring biomimicry into reality
  • communicating the value of biomimicry and demonstrating credibility
  • bridging biology and design in a meaningful and relevant way
  • building critical mass, generating momentum and making a difference

The growing interest in sustainability and a need to effectively deal with complex issues creates opportunities for bio-inspired design.  Of the sustainable design strategies that look to nature for inspiration, biomimicry seems uniquely positioned in terms of seeking to increase the positive impacts of our activities, having defined methods and tools, and tapping into a wealth of novel solutions (Mul, 2009; de Pauw et. al, 2010).  Lisa Schmidtke talked about the extensive body of information on biomimicry designs, processes and case studies that she is compiling.  ‘Open innovation’ services like InnoCentive and NineSigma that connect seekers with solvers provide a ready supply of challenges with awards ranging from $5K to as much as $100K.  Although most challenges are quite narrow in scope, some could benefit from a biomimetic approach.  The Biomimicry Guild has found that submitting solutions often lead to engagements even if the solution did not win the award.

A number of participants commented on the amount of time that had to be invested in the front end design process for a product, with or without incorporating biomimicry.   Carla Gould and Jessica Ching were involved in a project for Herman Miller that required almost a year to deliver a catalog of product directions.  Finding the right people and getting them engaged can be a challenge, particularly if specialized knowledge is required.  It can be difficult to find funding, although ‘open funding’ services like Kickstarter (check out the Design category) may be useful in some situations. 

Emer Natalio suggested that the group tackle a real problem that results in a clear outcome and ideally a prototype that could be used to raise additional funding to develop a commercial product or service.  We discussed exploring areas such as energy or pollution where bio-inspired design principles could result in solutions that have a significant impact (environmental, social and economic). 

A complementary approach is to find suitable competitions where we can explore different biomimetic approaches and at the same time increase the visibility of biomimicry.  Janet Kubler identified the 2011 International Algae Competition that has a reasonable timeline and appears suitable.  Competitions would force us to find ways of using biomimicry to reduce effort and increase speed, through a combination of qualifying opportunities and identifying the most appropriate methods.  Future calls are planned to further explore the competition.


Suggested Readings:


Image Credits:

Carla Gould graduated from the Ontario College of Arts and Design (OCAD) biomimetics program.




Casey Wong graduated from the OCAD biomimetics program and is a Toronto industrial designer working on a rooftop greenhouse project involving biomimicry and nanotechnology.  He is also interested in self-erecting structures.



Emer Natalio is a project manager at Nova Southeastern University (Florida).  He is an entrepreneur interested in biomimicry, nanotechnology, cross-pollinating ideas and turning ideas into products. 





Janet Kubler teaches biology at California State University Northridge with a particular interest in biology from a functional perspective.  She took the Biologist at the Design Table (BaDT) course in 2004.




Jessica Ching graduated from the OCAD biomimetics program and is a Toronto industrial designer looking for opportunities to apply biomimicry outside of the educational environment.




Karen Verbeek has a biology and industrial design background and attended the Costa Rica Biomimicry Workshop.  She is currently focusing on education in the Greater Toronto Area and building a biomimicry network. 



Kaveri Joseph graduated from the OCAD biomimetics program and is looking for ways to leverage biomimicry in her search for employment. 

Lisa Schmidtke works as a Certified Biomimicry Professional at Clark Nexsen, an architecture and engineering firm in Norfolk (Virginia), and has been given the mission to integrate biomimicry into the firm’s practice.  She studied architecture and interior design as an undergrad and is 1 of 15 graduates of the first Two-Year Certificate Program offered by the Biomimicry Institute.


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Perspectives on biomimicry from "out in the field"

These comments below are the result of a very loose informal survey with a few recent graduates of the design program at OCADU, and colleagues from other countries. Students, recent graduates and industrial designers, please respond with your comments and experiences. 

1. Biomimicry is a great conversation starter and way into a firm. 

2. Once biomimicry is pitched, do we have enough tools to be sure it will help us deliver a biomimicry-based product in the commercial setting? 

3. Can biomimicry help us improve design timelines?  There is the impression that it can make a project more complicated. 

4. Need to have a large variety of case studies that illustrate the biomimicry design process to increase confidence in the process.

5. Business models are needed to show the biomimicry methodology rather than only seeing the final end result and how it can lead to new business opportunities.

6. Biomimicry can turn from an exciting, interesting topic to a discussion of the big sustainability issues at the core of product design, such as why we even need the product or material use. Keeping on top of new materials and processes allows us to be realistic in what we can achieve.

7. If you can't work with biomimicry applications now, what can you do to keep your biomimicry interest, knowledge and skills current?

8. It's difficult to educate people about biomimicry (and sustainability even) when getting design work is often enough of a challenge. 

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Some comments and experiences

"1. Biomimicry is a great conversation starter and way into a firm."
-> Just graduated in the Netherlands as industrial designer and I would like to do something with biomimicry professionally now. So this part is what I'm going to figure out right now.

"2. Once biomimicry is pitched, do we have enough tools to be sure it will help us deliver a biomimicry-based product in the commercial setting?"
-> Maybe not. I did my MSc thesis for a design agency wondering how to apply biomimicry in the process. The tools presented by the Biomimicry Institute are not sufficient, and seem to be developed by biologists and therefore have a mismatch with the daily practice of designers. My tool is not the ultimate answer but I'll try to develop it further (so, evolving it ;)

"4. Need to have a large variety of case studies that illustrate the biomimicry design process to increase confidence in the process."
-> Probably, for a lot of companies it is important to have some guarantee. Biomimicry can cost more time than the 'standard' design process, and could lead to conclusions that some things have to change drastically. So, investments both in time and money can keep the companies away. 

"7. If you can't work with biomimicry applications now, what can you do to keep your biomimicry interest, knowledge and skills current?"
-> Compete in design contests / business cases. It could even help to advocate for biomimicry!

"8. It's difficult to educate people about biomimicry (and sustainability even) when getting design work is often enough of a challenge."
-> As I said, I tried to develop a biomimicry tool for designers and we had several projects with students at the design company. The process itself and the results clearly show that biomimicry cannot be teached in a few days of workshops, and that perhaps a paradigm shift is needed to gain all the (creative) advantages of biomimicry. Do not think that biomimicry itself will add a lot more difficulties to the design process, it rather changes the kinds of difficulties.

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Tools and Impact of Biomimicry on Design

Mike, I would be very interested in learning more about the tool you are developing. 

I like the comment "Do not think that biomimicry itself will add a lot more difficulties to the design process, it rather changes the kinds of difficulties."  Given the appropriate situation, the right information and decent tools, biomimicry should make the design process easier.  It allows designers to tap into novel ways of looking at problems and provides a library of solutions that have a track record.  Clearly there is much we still need to learn about nature but that should not stop us from applying what we have already learned.

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Green Infrastructure

I have a presentaion Saving With Rain where I promote green infrastructure over grey infrastructure (concrete). I quote from the Biomimicry book and suggest using basins, swale, raingardens and cisterns. The first 3 are directly to bio inspired design. A no brainer that many agree with, but has only been used to a small degree. I beleive it will catch on more and when it does I think the nay sayer will be surprised how much easier and cheaper and more beautiful our world will be. http://savingwithrain.info go to Steve's Stuff or Google Saving With Rain

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Ernst-Jan Mul bio-inspired design

I have been exchanging e-mails with Ernst-Jan Mul who has 'hung out his shingle' as a bio-inspired designer.  Although the time is not ideal for Europeans, he may try to joint the Skype conference call.

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Skype Conference Calls

Two possible conference call dates to discuss this topic:

  • Tue, 2011/01/25
  • Tue, 2011/02/01

The event documents point to an online calendar to help determine the best date and time.

The final call details are at 'Turning Ideas Into Reality' Conference Call: 16PST, 19EST, 00UTC.

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Translating ideas into a tangible form typically requires money.  Finding funding organizations or foundations can be an exercise in frustration.  Even if a match is found, the chances of receiving funding are slim for a designer without a track record. 

Kickstarter is a crowd-source application to connect creative projects with individual funders.  The site includes design and technology categories.  Funders commit to an amount but money only changes hands if the project is fully funded by the deadline.  One caveat is that Kickstarter uses Amazon Payments which can accept funds from international sources but currently requires that project creators be US-based.

Although the TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kits project has raised over $750K, probably because funders effectively get kits at below market value, most projects are looking for relatively small amounts of funding.   Designing and promoting Kickstarter projects appears to be an art in itself.   Kickstarter could be used as a means of developing a concept or creating a prototype that could then be entered in a design competition.


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re: Funding / Analyzing Kickstarter

Analyzing Kickstarter: What succeeds, by how much and how often uses public information from Kickstarter to analyze successful projects by:

  • type by number of projects and total funding (Film&Video and Music are large on both criteria, Design and Games raised significant funds on a much smaller number of projects
  • size of projects (Design, Games and Technology had 50-60% funded at $20K or above)

Unsuccessful projects across all categories seem to stall around to 20% funding mark, probably because they do not attract interest outside of the core group of supporters.

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Using Kickstarter Effectively

How to Kick Ass on Kickstarter: An Interview with Frank Chimero describes how Frank used Kickstarter to fund the book The Shape of Design on "the sense of meaning and purpose that designers bring to their work".  He attained his goal of $27K in only four hours and is well his way to $60K.  His tips included:

  • lay the groundwork - in Frank's case, he had explored the topics of the book in his blog for two years which not only created credibility but also allowed him to refine his ideas
  • create an engaging and conversational video
  • have a clear rationale for using Kickstarter
  • give backers good reasons for supporting the project
  • give backers a sense of participating in the process
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Kickstarter + Biomimicry = Awesomeness?

Kickstarter and Biomimicry combined could be very interesting. Certainly combined with student work or designers playing with biomimicry in their spare time. It could result in a case proving the viability of biomimetic solutions, I guess.

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Background on TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kits

The iPod Watch: How I Launched a Great Idea with No Money story on BNET describes how Scott Wilson used Kickstarter to validate, market and raise funds for producing the first batch of watch conversion kits.  In this case, the product was the reward for investing, which may explain why this project was heavily over-subscribed.  Wilson had a track record as a designer, the expertise to deliver on the conversion kits and product that people clearly wanted to own.

Using Kickstarter to fund development of a BID opportunity is likely to be a different story.  There is still the opportunity for investors to 'get a piece of the action' but probably not in a tangible fashion unless the design is for a consumer product. 

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