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Jan Lee headshot

Biomimicry: Designing Startups with Nature's Help

By Jan Lee

What do the syrphid fly, the Shinkansen bullet train and the underwater modem all have in common?

They are all examples of biomimicry – a technology that allows one species to “mimic” and benefit from another.

Biomimicry is as ancient as life itself. Plants, bugs and animals have been imitating each other for eons as a survival technique. The syrphid fly, or hover fly, for example, which is found in many parts of the world, figured out years ago that the bright striping of the bumble bee warded off predators and helped it to survive.

Humans have been using this type of thinking process for centuries as well. The first flying machines, designed by Leonardo da Vinci, were patterned after birds. Although there is no evidence that he actually built a machine, his drawings helped to set the foundation for the Wright brothers’ experiments and later success.

When scientists want to explain what biomimicry is, they often point to the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train. Its ability to operate at maximum speeds of around 200 miles per hour with minimum noise pollution is aided by the train’s unusual nose, which was designed to mimic the properties of the kingfisher’s long, needle-like beak. The company’s general manager of technological development, who was an avid birdwatcher, determined that the kingfisher’s slender beak was what allowed it to penetrate the water without a lot of noise or splashing. By redesigning the train’s forefront, engineers were able to minimize the sonic boom effect that often occurs when trains are starting up or exiting a tunnel. Designers also took cues from the wing structure of the owl, which contains a serrated comb of feathers that allow for silent flight. Engineers integrated this concept into the pantograph above the train that provides electricity for its operation.

Since 1990, when the Shinkansen was redesigned, the field of biomimicry has literally exploded. Scientists, designers entrepreneurs and ecologists have all found value in Nature’s little lesson book of imitation and adaptation.


Language was one of the first obstacles to designing a fail-safe tsunami warning system. Scientists figured out that detection systems would not only have to be able to sustain rough ocean conditions, they would have to be able to “speak” clearly and be heard long distances.

The German startup Evologics developed an underwater sensor based on navigation techniques used by the dolphin, that not only allows it to sense objects around it, but can transmit information reliably, even during the worst of conditions.

“Under good conditions, currently available underwater modems can transmit data satisfactorily,” Evologics explains on its website. “However, when the hydroacoustic conditions turn worse due to interfering noise and varying multipath propagation etc., a superior technology modem is required.”

Underwater sensors are used all over the world to predict tsunami conditions, and remain a vital warning system for many communities.

Ocean life, in fact, has had a significant impact on biomimicry. The shark’s slippery but ribbed skin has offered inspiration for a variety of new products, ranging from antibacterial surfaces that help to repel infection to concepts that improve aerodynamics in flight.

Designers have found that the shark’s ribbed skin actually helps it fight off bacteria. Sharklet Technologies has developed a number of applications for this design, including medical devices, home surface use in kitchens and bathrooms, and marine uses on ships and pleasure craft. According to the company, the ribbed surface does the same thing that paints and other chemicals have done for ages. But instead of killing the bacteria through the release of chemicals, Sharklet’s microscopic design “creates a surface upon which bacteria do not like to grow.” The result, says Sharklet, is an environment that effectively prevents the spread of germs.

Scientists are also exploring ways to mimic the slippery surface of the shark and other fish for aerodynamic uses.

How do mammals such as horses, donkeys and dogs hear so well? It’s not just the shape of the ear. According to the website Ask Nature, scientists have discovered that the similarity in all mammals (including humans) is a protein in the ear called prestin, that helps convert energy to sound and back and in so doing, amplifies sounds.

Cambridge-based company, InAct Labs is working on a way to use this protein to power space suits that would be “self-healing, semi-living skins” that would convert movement into useable energy in Mars’ forbidding environment.

Sulfur has long been thought of as the main source of fuel for the tiny microorganisms that live in Yellowstone National Park’s hot and intense environment. But a paper published this month by a team of researchers at Colorado University suggests that the real source for their survival is hydrogen. That’s good news on several fronts, says Dr. Norman Pace  and his team, because hydrogen plays an amazing number of roles in the environment – including in the human body.

"Recent studies have shown that Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which cause ulcers, live on hydrogen inside the stomach," said John Spear, lead author of the report. "Salmonella metabolizes hydrogen in the gut. It makes me wonder how many different kinds of microbes out there are metabolizing hydrogen in extreme environments."

This news opens a path for a wide variety of startups and uses,  including hydrogen storage and capture and redesigning hydrogen chemistry for fuel cells.

Keeping buildings cool, especially in arid, hot environments where air conditioning affords comfort, has been a major challenge for years. Record temperatures everywhere from Vancouver, BC Canada to London, UK has made this even more of a concern these days.

Architects for the Eastgate Centre  in Harare, Zimbabwe, where temperatures can easily climb to triple digits, took a lesson from one of nature’s oldest high-rise buildings: the termites’ nest. The shopping center/residential building was constructed in 1995 without an air conditioner – except for the building’s natural structure, that is. The building’s passive heating and cooling system – designed around the termites’ use of tunnels, chimneys and wind pressure fields, is self-regulating, saving a bundle on operation costs. Thus, rents are less expensive. It also is an attractive setting in which to live, work and shop.

Other architectural projects currently underway include Pneumocell, an inflatable architecture patterned after the human cell, and TECHTONICA Architecture’s Stick.S, a lightweight, antiseismic structure of reinforced concrete that is based on the human bone structure.

For more examples of how Mother Nature is helping to guide technology’s eco-conscious adaptations and advances, check out the Ask Nature website. There are more than 1600 strategies currently under investigation, and more than 180 different products that use biomimicry already designed.

Image of dolphins by Docklands Tony

Image of Eastgate Centre, Harare Zimbabwe by Damien Farrell

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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