By Erika Fredrickson
Jakki Mohr found her most recent academic inspiration from a humpback whale.
That might seem odd considering that for the past 25 years — 15 of those at The University of Montana’s landlocked business school — she has taught marketing, and not, for instance, marine biology. Yet ever since she was a child, Mohr has loved being out in nature, and in Missoula she walks and runs along scenic trails and into the wild mountains around the valley. In her class, though, there hasn’t really been an opportunity to make a connection between the natural world and the world of human industry.
In the elective she teaches, Marketing of High Technology Products and Innovations, Mohr aims to expose her students to the most cutting-edge technologies. “In order to have credibility in the high-tech domain, you have to be on the leading edge of trends,” says Mohr, UM’s first female Regents Professor and the William and Rosemary Gallagher Distinguished Faculty Fellow.
In 2008, however, Mohr heard a talk at UM by Janine Benyus, a Stevensville resident and author of “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” The talk was about biomimicry, which is the practice of solving human problems by developing technologies based on the way nature creates structural forms, does chemistry and establishes whole ecosystems.
For Mohr, it hit right at the intersection between nature and business. In one of her examples, Benyus talked about the humpback whale. She told the story of how one company had revamped the blades of their wind turbines to emulate the scalloped edges of a whale flipper, which allowed the blades to cut efficiently through air just as the flipper cuts efficiently through water. And she gave another example that blew Mohr away: A company called Calera Corp. had started making cement inspired by the same process that ocean coral uses to create its skeleton. Instead of a high-heat, energy-intensive, carbon dixoide-emitting process — the usual way cement is made — the company makes the material in ambient temperatures, like the ocean does, removing carbon dioxide in the process and creating a substance that’s even more durable.
“Her examples were so compelling and totally captured my imagination,” Mohr says. Here was a way, she realized, to integrate very disparate aspects of her life and to help her students think on the cutting edge while still considering environmental impacts. It was a chance for her students to aid companies which, in a world fixed on consumption and profits, might be able to lead the future of business in a positive way.
Biomimicry is not a new concept. Some of the most important inventions — from planes to telephones — use components based on biological designs. But the deliberate philosophy behind biomimicry is fairly new. Velcro was devised in 1948 from the way burrs cling with ease to clothing and fur. Japan’s bullet train used to cause a loud booming sound at high speeds until the nose of it was redesigned in the late 1990s to imitate the kingfisher, whose beak allows it to gracefully break through water. Now the train is quieter, and its new aerodynamic nose uses 15 percent less electricity while running 10 percent faster.
In recent years, organizations such as Missoula’s Biomimicry 3.8 (formerly the Biomimicry Guild, co-founded by Benyus), along with other biomimicry groups across the globe, have helped companies and inventors think more deliberately about how to solve human problems by thinking about what nature would do. One resource Biomimicry 3.8 has developed is the online database Ask Nature, where people can type in a question such as “How does nature filter water” and get a list of organisms that do just that, plus a list of the technologies that have been developed based on each organism.
Current examples of biomimicry are inspiring: Columbia Forest Products has found a way to mimic the way mussels adhere to rocks, and a soy-based protein adhesive is now used instead of formaldehyde to make a brand of plywood called PureBond. Not only does it avoid toxic chemicals, it has enhanced durability and water-resistance as well.
Telling such stories evokes the kind of delight you might get from children exploring the forest floor or first hearing about space exploration. As Mohr began studying biomimicry, she was able to get that message across to others in the business world. In her TED talks — one she did in Bozeman and one in San Diego — you can hear that thrill in the way Mohr delivers the stories.
“How does nature create a strong vapor explosion?” she asks the audience. “In this case it’s the Bombardier beetle.” She explains how Swedish Biomimetics 3000 has mimicked the beetle’s valve and chamber system to produce a spray explosion called uMist — a technology used with, among other things, fuel injection in the automotive industry. She tells the story of how shark skin repels bacteria and how Sharklet Technologies in Colorado uses that design with hospital surfaces to keep bacteria such as MRSA (the antibiotic-resistant staph infection) from colonizing.
Since weaving biomimicry into her marketing class, Mohr’s students have worked with small startups that use biomimetic inventions, helping those companies analyze what their marketing challenges are and coming up with recommendations for how to overcome those challenges as part of their coursework for credit. Students have worked with GreenShield Technologies, which makes naturally water-repellent fabrics based on the lotus leaf. They’ve worked on marketing plans for Ornilux, which manufactures glass that minimizes bird collisions. That glass mimics the webbing of spiders whose threads use a naturally reflective UV coating.
“Those projects have been extremely well-received by the companies,” Mohr says. “They were blown away by the quality of work the students had done for them. It’s really a win-win-win opportunity: It’s a win for the Biomimicry Institute, it’s a win for the companies because they’re getting good insight [for free], and it’s a win for the students to be able to demonstrate marketing proficiency with a very complicated technical scientific invention.”
Biomimicry holds an allure for a lot of people, and the promise it holds for the future quickly puts stars in people’s eyes. But it’s not always so easy.
In one of her TED talks, Mohr says that in studying a particular problem a biologist asks the question, “How does nature do that?” An engineer asks, “How do I solve that from a technical challenge perspective?” And a business person asks “What’s the value of that to customers in the marketplace or to stockholders?”
“Those three different lenses on the problem all need to be brought together synergistically,” she says.
Often a biomimetic solution might take years to develop. For instance, Qualcomm MEMS Technologies Inc., a division of mobile technology company Qualcomm, has a biomimetic invention based on the way Morpho butterfly wings reflect light waves to create iridescent color patterns in the Amazon rain forest. The invention came from Iridigm Display Corp., where founder Mike Miles studied for years how to mimic these reflective properties to create electronic displays — for cellphones, cameras and laptops — that would maintain their bright color even outside in the sun, where most people usually have to shield their displays from the glare. And they’d do it without relying on extra energy. Qualcomm acquired the company for the vibrant displays and also because these new displays actually conserved the battery better, and that seemed appealing to their customers.
“It’s a very interesting strategy,” Mohr says. “Yet, the length of time between studying how to get the color and actually getting it into a viable product, that is so incredibly challenging that many companies simply don’t have the length of time to make that work. Most of these companies we studied were publicly traded companies that have short-term pressures to meet earnings targets on Wall Street. They’re inspired by the promise of biomimicry, but when they look at how long it takes to take it from inspiration to execution, they’re not able to sustain that time period.”
On a basic level, it’s also hard for everyone involved to get on the same page. Even talking marketing with Mohr can be a challenge if you’re not savvy to the lingo. So, think about how difficult it could be for a biologist and an engineer to communicate about biomimicry using the terms and concepts they deal with in their separate fields.
“Who knows how the butterfly wings create their iridescent color?” Mohr says. “It’s a biologist. Who knows how to create displays for electronics? It’s an engineer. How do you get engineers to talk to biologists in the design process? It’s not obvious to most companies.”
A lot of companies hire a consultant or a biologist as part of the design team, but it’s a challenge to bridge those worlds. It can be frustrating. Biologists often are motivated by the purity of their discipline, Mohr says. And engineers initially might be motivated by how their invention will rise to the top of the market.
“There’s this whole philosophical edge to this discussion, right?” Mohr says. “You’re going to take advantage of nature and make money off of it? That’s a real paradox!” She laughs. “And so there’s a huge disconnect there as well.”
It’s a new approach for everyone, but it doesn’t mean it can’t work. And to Mohr, it’s essential that it does. “Overcoming those challenges,” she says, “is going to be what separates companies who successfully harness biomimicry from those who do not.”
As a co-author for the book “Marketing of High Technology Products and Innovations,” Mohr pitched biomimicry as a concept to her co-authors for the latest edition.
“They gave me the green light to go ahead and include that as one of the key protocols for innovation that we cover in one of the chapters in the book,” Mohr says. She worked with Benyus and biomimicry consultant Dayna Baumeister to nail down the concepts. It ended up being the first business book to include biomimicry. Mohr also has included biomimicry as a subject in some of her marketing articles.
Most recently, she started an academic study looking at Fortune 500 companies attempting to integrate biomimicry into their respective industries. She’s working with two collaborators — one from the University of Arizona and another from the University of Illinois. The trio received a grant from The Marketing Science Institute in Boston to study the Fortune 500s to understand the challenges they face in bringing a sustainability ethos to their innovation processes and the strategies that they use to overcome those challenges, even those as simple as the resistance to change.
There’s good reason to explore those big-company obstacles. It’s these large entities that have the biggest environmental footprints, and that means the changes they make toward sustainability would have enormous impact.
With that in mind, Mohr and her collaborators started collecting data by interviewing key executives across the companies and generating hypotheses. They’re still writing up their report, which will eventually be peer-reviewed in the hopes of getting the results published in a marketing journal.
“It’s been a challenging project in many ways,” she says. “But we think our findings are going to have a very broad impact not only in the way companies think about biomimicry but also in terms of the approach to the innovation process, marrying new product development with sustainable objectives.”
No funding is coming from Biomimicry 3.8 or any other biomimicry proponent, and that’s in order to make sure the study is independent and unbiased. One of Mohr’s larger goals at the end of the study is to build closer ties between UM and the biomimicry group in Missoula.
“They have affiliations with universities across the world, yet we at UM don’t have a formal affiliation with them, and it really requires a faculty champion to do that,” Mohr says. “For a faculty champion to have expertise, they have to have done cutting-edge research in that topic.”
Biomimicry already is being thought about in some UM environmental and biology classes, she says. An official relationship with the institute could open up incredible possibilities for students interested in biomimicry models of all kinds.
While some companies out there are on board and ready to find ways to incorporate biomimicry and market it, there still are those companies who remain skeptical about the sustainability path, Mohr says. They assume that sustainability means it will cost them in some way. But when companies get past that fallacy of logic, they tend to be surprised.
“There’s a really cool MIT study that came out in fall 2011 that actually shows companies that infused sustainability into their businesses are more profitable and have a greater competitive advantage compared to companies that don’t,” Mohr says.
When companies do jump on board, there tends to be some skepticism from consumers. One question that savvy consumers worry about is “green washing.” Green washing is deceptive spin coming from a company trying to convince consumers that it’s sustainable, even if that claim is a stretch. And it certainly does happen now that green products have become popular. In working with companies through her classroom and in her interviews with industry leaders of Fortune 500 companies, Mohr found a curious other side to the story.
“We talked to many companies who were so worried about being accused of green washing that they decided they did not want to include some of their green practices in their external marketing communication,” she says. You have to remember, she notes, that these are companies already interested in being sustainable, not just any companies in the marketplace looking to make a buck. Companies committed to sustainability run a bigger risk from accusations of green washing, so they’d prefer to not take that risk at all. But it’s a viewpoint most people don’t hear about.
“The leaders were extremely sensitive about it to the point where they said, ‘We’d rather not make any green claims at all; we would rather let external influencers and bloggers carry that message for us,’” she says.
Part of the problem is that companies who claim to be green are going to be more scrutinized by environmental consumers, which is not a bad thing but can lead to high expectations. When is a company truly green? “Because ultimately, unless you can control your own supply chain from extraction of the resource to the actual recycling of those resources, there’s going to be some impact somewhere,” Mohr says.
While green washing was a concern among the companies using biomimicry, it wasn’t the main concern.
Bryony Schwan, Biomimicry 3.8’s executive director, says that biomimicry tends to have less arbitrary benchmarks than other green systems of measurement. Part of that is that you’re working toward designs by nature, not constructs made up by humans. And there’s also an attitude, at least with the biomimicry group, that’s more glass-half-full.
“The reality is that it’s always a journey,” Schwan says. “It’s unlikely that we’ll ever get the kind of efficiency you see in nature, and so for us it’s the pathway that’s open. An example I like to use for that is Velcro. Velcro was one of the first biomimetic products that comes to mind when people think about biomimicry, and it’s a great idea. But the problem is it’s made out of petroleum-based products. So if we were working with a company making Velcro, we’d say, ‘That’s great. That’s a fantastic first step. You’ve mimicked the shape and you came up with a really brilliant idea, but now look at the materials nature uses. That’s your next step along the pathway to being truly sustainable.’ We never approach it as a burden.
“And what ends up happening when we sit down and work with companies is when you start posing all these questions to people, they actually get more and more excited because they suddenly realize the more into nature they look, the more solutions there are.”
Mohr recently went back and read the famous 1854 essay “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, in which he wrote: “Let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores.” She also delved into poetry on nature and books with a psychological bent such as Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” about children with “nature deficit disorder.” She’s dug into studies on evolutionary biology and neuroscience studies about how nature — the ocean, for instance — affects the brain.
“I’ve been trying to read broadly about what it is about nature that speaks to people so profoundly,” she says. “What that is, I can’t say for sure. I think there’s something about this longing for a connection with nature that people experience. The second thing is I think people are concerned about the path that society is on.”
When it comes to the largest footprints, it’s the multinational businesses and government that may seek to make the changes. In 2010, the Obama administration invited Janine Benyus to consult on how to infuse biomimicry into the government bureaucracy process. Many industry leaders Mohr has spoken to also seem to “feel a moral obligation to change the trajectory,” she says.
One shining example of biomimicry is InterfaceFLOR, the largest designer and manufacturer of carpet tile in the world. The company realized that one of the major problems people face with carpeting, especially in commercial facilities, is that even when just a few tiles of carpet are worn, you end up ripping the whole thing out because of mismatching patterns and dyes.
“By asking the question, ‘How does nature create beautiful patterns in a random fashion?’ they found inspiration in the beauty of the forest floor,” says Mohr. The company started making tiles — made from non-petroleum-based bio-fibers — that were random enough to be interchangeable, even if the carpet dye weren’t an exact match. Like a forest floor full of twigs and rocks, the overall look of the Entropy carpet line would be cohesive, and tiles could be replaced as needed rather than tossing out perfectly good tiles. And InterfaceFLOR is looking for all kinds of ways to incorporate green and biomimetic design into its entire process, moving from a cradle-to-grave approach to a cradle-to-cradle based on reusing and repurposing the worn materials.
But that’s not the end of the story for InterfaceFLOR.
Instead of just providing the carpet, the company has developed a leasing model where they actually will manage the carpet needs of their large commercial customers, moving away from the need to actually sell the product. They work with an array of market segments — schools, health care and government — to provide services that include maintaining carpets and making sure that all parts of the process are part of a sustainable ecosystem. That’s important because it’s the type of positive shift that Mohr sees happening with business in the future. What if companies stopped trying to find ways of selling you things even after you’ve stopped needing those things, and started looking at how to meet your actual needs?
“In nature you have organisms that provide services for other organisms, and that logic is just intuitively appealing,” she says. “When you talk about moving from a consumption-oriented business model, where you have to sell people things, to a way where you conceptualize your business model more in terms of the underlying problem that you’re solving for your customers, and you provide that as a service, that is the way the future of business is moving.”
As the shift happens, Mohr and her students are gearing up to help companies figure out how to deliver that message. And why.
“It’s taken 3.8 billion years to evolve and adapt elegant, simple solutions that can solve our problems if we take the time to learn them,” she says.
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