Da Vinci would approve

Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci
Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci

Concepts from biomimicry and bioinspiration – the use of nature as a source of inspiration for new technologies – have shown a 10-fold increase in their occurrence in papers, grants and patents since 2000. That’s according to the latest edition of the Da Vinci Index, which tracks the spread of biomimicry through indicators that could presage the wider adoption of biomimetic technologies and techniques in manufacturing and other industries.

The Da Vinci Index is named after artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, the 15th century Renaissance man. (He is considered by many to be the father of biomimicry because of his keen interest in studying lessons from nature, which greatly influenced his inventions.) The index was created a year and a half ago by Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, as a follow-up to research she conducted on the potential future economic impact of biomimicry-based technologies. Her work was commissioned by the San Diego Zoo, which runs a bioinspiration lab. As part of its mission to bolster the real and apparent value of biodiversity, the zoo literally rents out its collection of plants and animals to companies looking to nature to solve their problems.

In her original paper, “Global Biomimicry Efforts – An Economic Game Changer,” Reaser asserted that “in 15 years biomimicry could represent $300 billion annually of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010 dollars.” And that doesn’t include the $50 billion she says biomimetic techniques could save us by encouraging more efficient use – and hence slower depletion – of natural resources.

In order to track progress toward those potential outcomes, Reaser is searching databases of patents and academic papers, as well as U.S. National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation grants, for mention of terms related to biomimicry. This technique is typical of other indices that track the spread of a technology (e.g., nanotechnology, cleantech). But there’s always a danger that it’s tracking the application of an idea to existing efforts, rather than new implementations of it.

“I think change is not taking place so much in the awareness of biomimicry as opposed to its actual use,” says Reaser. “If you read our study you can see that companies are applying it, and more often – and entire companies are being formed to use it.” Many of the classic examples of companies implementing biomimicry are well known, including adhesives that stick like gecko feet and e-ink displays that refract light like butterfly wings. But developments further up the research pipeline aren’t nearly as visible.

Preliminary analyses of the most recent data in the Da Vinci Index have revealed, for example, the truly international diffusion of the concept of biomimicry. “You see large numbers of papers (published on the subject) in China, England, Germany, France, Japan, India and Brazil,” says Reaser. Universities in China seem to be particularly enthusiastic about the concept: an analysis of papers revealed that five of the leading universities publishing in this field were from the country.

Since the beginning of 2011, the Da Vinci Index has seen a particularly rapid increase, from 800 to nearly 1,100 points. (The retroactively set baseline was 100 points in 2000, when 71 grants related to biomimicry were handed out compared to 260 in 2011.) A similar trend is evident in cleantech, according to Victor Cardona, a partner with law firm Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesita, which publishes an annual Clean Energy Patent Growth Index. In 2009, about 1,000 patents were published in areas like solar, wind and fuel cells. By 2011, that number had jumped to more than 2,400.

Cardona admits that indices like the ones created by his firm and by Reaser can’t hope to capture all the activity in any given body of literature, but, “we’re probably undercounting rather than over-counting,” since both indices go through additional screening after the initial keyword search.

Sampling patents, in particular, has the power to measure which areas are the subject of the most research and development – where, in essence, companies are willing to put real money. In that way, such indices can be a “leading indicator of things to come,” says Cardona.

One thing the Da Vinci Index indicates is that the application of biomimicry has continued to expand despite the economic downturn. Other efforts to connect corporations and the environment, such as corporate social responsibility initiatives, can sometimes be perceived as a drag on the bottom line and therefore disposable when budgets are constrained.

Biomimicry, on the other hand, with its focus on how biological systems adapt in the face of constrained resources, can improve efficiency, open up new markets and lead to the creation of new products, says Reaser. And since it’s hard to find inspiration in nature if we’ve wrecked it, the rise of biomimicry also dovetails with the goals of conservation organizations like the San Diego Zoo.

“The old model was very much business versus environment,” says Reaser. “But biomimicry provides a true bridge between business and environment.”

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