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Winning Design in Biomimicry Challenge Inspired by Fish Gills

3p Contributor | Wednesday March 6th, 2013 | 1 Comment

The University of Toronto Team's Fish Gill-Inspired Design

By George Groh
The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute recently announced the first-round winners of the 2012-2013 Biomimicry Student Design Challenge, with first place going to a team of civil engineering graduate students from the University of Toronto for their innovative design, a water filtration system inspired by fish gills.

Biomimicry is a new design philosophy with the primary tenet that nature knows best. After all, life has been evolving on Earth for 3.8 billion years, and during that time living organisms have had to solve many of the same problems we humans now face. For example, simple bacteria evolved solutions for a changing atmosphere, mobility, and light production. Biomimetic designers study nature’s patterns, and use them to inspire solutions to human needs.

Every fall the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute presents a themed challenge to teams of students around the world. This year’s theme is water, and its accessibility and management. Sixty-eight teams from around the world submitted designs for solving a water-related problem in their local biomes. The top three teams, University of Toronto, Artesis University College Antwerp, and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, tackled water issues from filtration to farming.

Fish gills, honeybees, and desert plants

The University of Toronto team’s winning project, Nature Inspired Removal of Air Entrained in Water, matches an engineering problem with nature’s ingenuity. Compressed air trapped in water pipes can cause damage, leading to water loss or the infiltration of pollutants. Currently, air must be removed from pipes by valves and vents, which incur high costs of maintenance and operation. The Toronto team’s device, which mimics the shape and high surface area of fish gills, has the potential to filter trapped air much more efficiently. “Fish rely on separating oxygen from water in order to breathe. When we looked closely at gills, we realized that the design principles applied by these organisms could be replicated, creating an efficient, adaptable, and multifunctional device,” said team member Rebecca Dziedzic.

Coming in second, were two students from Artesis University College Antwerp, Arne Pauwels and Ellen Van Steen, who looked to honeybees to help reduce food spoilage. Honeybees control the climate inside their hives by spreading water and beating their wings. This increases evaporation, which cools the hive. The students’ design, an evaporative cooler with a wholesale price of six dollars, mimics the honeybees’ behavior by circulating air over a wet cloth. This maintains ideal humidity and temperature for preserving fruits and vegetables with minimal water use.

The third-place project, submitted by Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile students Beatriz Mella and Paz González, presents a new method of farming in the arid Atacama region by copying the distribution pattern of a local plant, Tillandsia landbeckii. This plant grows in a banded pattern that maximizes the amount of moisture it can glean from surrounding fog, the predominant source of water in the area. The team designed a comprehensive farming strategy based on Tillandsia’s natural patterning that may help Chilean farmers in the Atacama combat an ongoing drought.

Autodesk presented a special sustainability award of $1,000 to a fourth team from Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mexico. The students built a water collector that mimics bromeliad plants and the webs of Eriophora spiders.

Incubation and development in Phase Two

Ten teams from the Student Design Challenge’s first round, including the top three finalists, qualified for round two of the competition. They will compete for up to $11,000 in prizes at the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute’s conference in Boston, June 21-23.

During this second phase, the teams will participate in an accelerator program provided by StartupNectar, a biomimicry incubator located in San Francisco, California, in partnership with the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute. StartupNectar will provide mentorship, tools, and support in the form of a three-month program designed to guide each team from concept to a full business plan.

The goal of the second round is for each team to evolve its idea or prototype into a viable business model that can deliver value in the world. After round two, the teams will be positioned to compete in a business plan competition, attract funding, or enter another incubator program. They will complete their deliverables on May 6, and then present them to judges who will grade them on biomimicry principles and entrepreneurship.

For each team, the endpoint may look different. The Time Capsule evaporation cooler could launch with a small investment and partnerships with NGOs in key areas, whereas the gill-inspired water filter may require a vastly different incubation process for an eventual commercial release. “Not all solutions require the same resources, and traditional incubation models often use one size fits all models,” said Lina Constantinovici, StartupNectar’s CEO. “There is no one size fits all in nature. So if you are attempting to give the appropriate nutrients to each different solution, how do you design a process that can accommodate that?”

StartupNectar’s style of incubation is novel both in its adherence to biomimicry principles and in the type of mentorship offered. “StartupNectar’s curriculum enables entrepreneurs to integrate biomimicry principles into the DNA of every aspect of the startup—to build organizations that create conditions conducive to life as they are creating value in the world,” said Constantinovici. It receives a smaller baseline of equity than traditional incubators, and services are tailored to each startup. The company also seeks to change the relationship between mentors and the entrepreneurs they coach. Instead of hosting visiting lecturers, StartupNectar assigns dedicated mentors to each team for the duration of the program. As a further incentive, the mentors receive a small portion of equity.

Of the ten teams now competing in round two, six will qualify to attend the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute’s conference in Boston, where the $10,000 grand prize and $1,000 People’s Choice Award will be announced on June 22. Whatever the outcome, all of these student teams are revolutionizing the way products are conceived, designed, and implemented.

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George Groh (@GeorgeGroh) is a biologist at the California Academy of Sciences and a member of the Bay Area Biomimicry Network (@BiomimicrySF).


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  • Eckhart Beatty

    Finally a bright idea is hatched to launch an incubator on the burgeoning “young” field of biomimicry. It’s exciting to see a focus on this long nascent “new” science (yet based on billions of years of R&D) rooted solidly in natural processes. I’m confident it’ll be largely through continued invention in this domain that humans will stabilize at long last their relationship with the environment–before it’s too late.
    Check out SF-based Start-up Nectar and Biomimicry 3.8 today.