How Would Mother Nature Design It?

If you’ve ever used a Velcro strip or marveled at the Shinkansen train in Japan, you have witnessed biomimicry in action. Bio (life) and mimicry (imitating) is the study of nature’s design principles, and it’s an idea whose time has come in terms of its ability to accelerate inspired, cleaner and more sustainable innovation. After all, for 3.8 billion years, nature has been the ultimate innovator, perfecting patterns, processes and systems with maximum efficiency and minimal waste. Only in nature is color structural, does waste equal food, and is carbon a building block. Over the last two decades, since biologist Janine Benyus published her first book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, in 1997, the science of biomimicry has slowly but surely intersected with the world of innovation, as smart product designers have asked the key question: How would Mother Nature design it?

The story of the Velcro strip – or more appropriately, the design of the ‘hook and loop’ closure that has been popularized by the company Velcro, is perhaps the best known and most intuitive of biomimicry examples. As the story goes, in 1948, a man named George de Mestral was walking his dog in the woods when a burr attached itself to his pant leg. As he tried to shake it loose, the burr and its tiny series of ‘hooks’ attached itself more firmly to his pants. In typical ‘a ha’ fashion, the idea struck him: wouldn’t a product designed like this be a great alternative to zippers?

Japan’s Shinkansen train is the modern evolution of the bullet train, and its designer, a bird watcher, was inspired by the Kingfisher in its innovation. Eiji Nakatsu imitated the Kingfisher’s beak in the shape of the train’s nose after observing the bird achieving a splashless water entry, moving rapidly and with incredibly low resistance. The adaptation of that design in the nose of the train means that not only is the train faster because of reduced drag, it is also more energy efficient and remarkably quieter than its predecessor.  Image credit: Sam Doshi. 500 Series Shinkansen

How Biomimicry Works


If you’re new to the idea of biomimicry, especially when it comes to nature as a source of inspiration for commercial innovation, start with this video introduction to Janine Benyus.

“Biomimicry is a new discipline where today’s product designers are asking the question: ‘what in the natural world has already solved what I’m trying to solve?” says Janine. “Then they try to emulate what they’ve learned with designs and strategies that move us to being better adapted to life on Earth over the long haul. There are no better models than the species that have preceded us for millions of years.”

“We need to replace our old industrial chemistry book with nature’s chemistry book,” Janine continues. “we use every element in the periodic table, even the most toxic ones, in very inelegant ways. Nature’s chemistry has a different paradigm – low toxicity, low temperature, low pressure.”

When you’ve entered the world of being mentored by nature, you begin to learn about the fascinating ways in which organisms and even ecosystems communicate, and how inspiration can come from even the most obscure of places. Consider, for example, that biomimicry has influenced architecture and design in the emulation of termite mounds, and product design in the creation of shark skin swimsuits that were imagined to decrease drag and improve speed for Olympic swimmers. You’ll learn how butterfly wings have inspired solar cells, and how gull wings could improve airplane design. Biomimicry has even inspired futuristic design, as seen in the prototyping of an all-electric “air taxi” for the future by Lilium in Germany.

Biomimicry isn’t necessarily a new idea, though. people have been learning from nature since the dawn of humanity, and many indigenous groups from around the world actively practice biomimicry to this day.  What’s new is how far biomimicry has come since that time, and in particular in the last few years, as the practice of biomimicry has gained a global following.

Biomimicry as a Catalyst for Innovation


Ray Anderson was an early adopter of the idea of biomimicry, so much so that he recruited Janine to his now legendary Eco Dream Team and introduced him to Interface’s product designers. A walk in the woods with textile designer David Oakey and the team from the Biomimicry Institute resulted in one of the company’s first big wins in the name of sustainability: a carpet tile product called Entropy that was designed to mimic the visual aesthetic of a wooded forest floor and all of its attendant, yet pleasing, chaos.

It’s a great example of what Janine often describes as the search for nature’s unifying patterns – that toolbox of patterns that can be found broadly across the majority of life on Earth. In addition to Velcro, bullet trains and carpet tile, the world of biomimicry has also manifested in really novel ways.

Biomimicry Institute

The Biomimicry Institute is a global nonprofit that exists to create a nature-positive, inclusive, and regenerative world inspired and guided by nature's genius. Led by Janine’s vision and a team of educators and innovators, the Institute envisions a world in which people view nature not as a warehouse of goods but as a storehouse of knowledge and inspiration for sustainable solutions. Founded in 2006, the Institute first worked to introduce biomimicry into K-12 education and curricula through programs at zoos, museums and aquariums.

In 2008, AskNature debuted - a database created by the Biomimicry Institute that catalogs solutions found in nature based on the design principle you are looking to emulate. A decade later, smart product designers know that a query there might yield the best research for the next million-dollar idea. Ever the educators, the Institute provides lesson plans, classroom exercises and educator training courses in the resources section of so that both teachers and students can bring biomimicry into the classroom one project at a time. Along the way, Biomimicry 3.8 emerged as a for-profit consultancy with a goal to bring biologists to every enterprise – from start-ups to Fortune 500s.

Biomimicry Entrepreneurship

Today, the Ray C. Anderson Foundation is a proud supporter of two innovation programs at the Biomimicry Institute, the Ray of Hope Accelerator and the Biomimicry Launchpad.
The Ray of Hope Accelerator annually supports a cohort of ten high-impact nature-inspired startups, spanning from Pre-seed to Series A stages and representing various sectors and regions. Each selected startup receives $15,000 in non-dilutive funding and over $50,000 worth of in-kind services. This includes tailored coaching, investor introductions, a 4-day Nature Retreat, and comprehensive training materials covering topics such as Impact and Sustainability Business Training, Innovation Storytelling & Amplification, DEI, and Founder Mental Health. Together, these changemakers are solving systemic environmental and climate challenges. Meet the alumni companies here.

This is not your typical accelerator. The Ray of Hope Accelerator prioritizes individual growth for startup founders, and visionary leaders.  The program emphasizes relationship-building and fosters a vibrant community of innovative startups inspired by nature to drive positive impact. Learn more about the Ray of Hope Accelerator.

The Biomimicry Launchpad equips scientists, engineers, and designers with the skills and tools they need to turn their work into real-world solutions. This program seeks to accelerate the growth of biomimetic technology startups in order to create scalable solutions to systemic environmental and social challenges. Each year the Launchpad invites the most promising nature-inspired scientists, engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs to participate in a free 10-week program. The curriculum includes business training, connections, and resources for these innovators who otherwise may not have considered commercializing their work. The unique combination of business and biomimicry training, along with in-person expeditions in extraordinary natural locations, has proven to inspire, educate, and build a vibrant community amongst these multidisciplinary participants. You can meet the 2023 participants here.
Like nature, the Biomimicry Institute and the Foundation have been evolving these programs based on changing needs and conditions. A history of our work can be found below.

In 2016, the first prize recipients were a team from the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile, who designed a new way of restoring soil quality that emulates the way hardy “nurse” plants establish themselves in degraded soils and pave the way for new plant species to grow. Originally named BioNurse, the LifePatch returns vitality to the soil by improving conditions for seedlings and exposing them to a mix of nutrients, is fabricated with natural fibers, and biodegrades after one season. By mimicking biological principles, the design innovation provides a way to grow and protect new plants and ensure that the soil can be regenerated to feed our world’s growing population.  The team of judges from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation and the biomimicry community also awarded $20,000 to the Oasis Aquaponic System (2nd Place), $15,000 to the Jube team (3rd Place), and $10,000 each to the four other finalist teams in 2016.

In 2017, the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize was awarded to NexLoop, who designed biomimetic products and systems to collect and integrate in situ atmospheric water sources into sustainable and affordable urban food production. Their AquaWeb design is a modular, scalable building envelope system for food production applications, such as greenhouses, indoor vertical farms and container farms. “NexLoop was an impressive team across the board,” said John A. Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, when he presented the prize. “They have a deep understanding of how biomimicry aids in the design process, and their plans for hyper-local water capture and storage in urban settings could play a crucial role in scaling local, sustainable agriculture.” Each aspect of AquaWeb’s design was inspired by living systems, including how cribellate orb weaver spider webs collect fog from the air, how drought-tolerant plants like the crystalline ice plant store water and how mycorrhizal fungi like the Jersey cow mushroom distribute water. The team also looked to the dwarf honey bee’s hexagonal nest structure for AquaWeb’s efficient and modular design. Since receiving the Ray of Hope Prize, NexLoop has received the Innovator of the Year prize from Ag Tech X, and was recognized as a 2018 Make It in Brooklyn Innovation Award winner.

In 2018, a team from Brazil was inspired by winged seeds, bromeliads, and forest leaf litter to offer a smarter, cheaper and faster approach for large-scale forest restoration. The Nucleário Planting System received the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize for their promise to eliminate the need for irrigation, herbicides, and pesticides. “This simple but impactful biomimicry-inspired innovation has the potential to transform reforestation efforts and help reverse global warming,” said John A. Lanier, upon awarding the prize. “The six judges were impressed with all of the teams, but Nucleário stood out because they had a clear understanding of the path to commercialization.” The team from Nucleário, (Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli, Pedro Rutman Pagnoncelli, and Bruno Ferrari) was featured in stories on NBC and BBC for their win. Nucleário is designed to be used in remote areas of the Atlantic rainforest, and it functions like leaf litter, preventing soil leaching and increasing soil moisture levels and protecting seedlings from leafcutter ants and invasive grasses. It also mimics how bromeliads collect water from rain and dew to provide a microclimate that attracts biodiversity. By reducing maintenance costs and helping improve seedling survival rates, Nucleário gets more trees in the ground in less time.

In 2019, a team from Boston won the Ray of Hope Prize for Watchtower Robotics -- a next-generation, flexible robot that can inspect water pipes and locate leaks for utilities to easily fix. Mimicking a squid, the Watchtower robot leaves behind a beacon at every leak it finds in an underground water pipe, which allows maintenance crews to locate it with wireless scanners from above ground, pinpoint the location of the leaks, and know where to dig and fix them. The same year, Watchtower also won the global Urban Water Challenge from Imagine H20.

Aruga Technologies took second place in 2019, taking home a $25,000 prize (sponsored by an anonymous donor) for its vascular implant technology. Based in Pittsburgh, Aruga identified a pattern in nature: the function of dynamic surface wrinkles to keep surfaces clean. Dynamic wrinkling helps keep dolphin skin from becoming fouled with barnacles and algae, for example, and also keeps human lungs and blood vessels free from deposits. Applying this idea to vascular grafts has the potential to not only save on healthcare costs and achieve better patient outcomes, but also has sustainability wins due to decreased needs for replacement grafts and days spent in Intensive Care Units. Although the company's market entry point is the surgical graft market, this technology has the potential for anti-fouling applications in aquaculture, roofing and industrial process hosing.

In 2020, the Ray of Hope Prize was awarded to ECOncrete Tech LTD., a science-based company that develops high performance, environmentally-sensitive concrete products for coastal and marine infrastructure projects. ECOncrete offers products that facilitate the growth and regeneration of local marine species and strengthen structures over time through a process known as bioprotection. Inspired by beach rock formations, coral polyps, oyster shells, mangrove roots, and other marine habitats and life forms, ECOncrete embodies biomimicry’s design intention: to learn from and mimic forms and processes found in nature to create regenerative solutions.

Cypris Materials, the second place winner in 2020, is a Berkeley, California-based company that has developed a paint that reflects wavelengths of light to produce color, instead of utilizing toxic pigments and dyes. Known as structural color, and found throughout nature (most notably on the wings of morpho butterflies), the tunable coating Cypris invented uses biomimicry principles and can be applied directly to surfaces as a paint. It reflects wavelengths throughout the UV, visible, and infrared spectrums. The technology improves building and automobile energy efficiency by reflecting UV, visible, and infrared light, while also expanding the available color palette and eliminating toxic pigments and colorants.

In 2021, the Ray of Hope Prize was awarded to Spintex Engineering. Spintex is a University of Oxford spinout company that manufactures biodegradable textile fibers for use in fashion and high-performance material applications. 

Over the course of hundreds of millions of years, spiders have evolved the ability to create one of the world’s strongest and most adaptable materials—spider silk! The secret to a spider's ability to create silk lies within their spinnerets, specialized organs that turn the liquid silk gel held in the spider’s abdomen into a solid thread. After years of research into this unique mechanism, Spintex has managed to mimic the spider's amazing ability. The company has created a process to spin textile fibers from a liquid gel, at room temperature, with water and biodegradable textile fibers as the only outputs.

The textile industry is searching for sustainable technologies and solutions that will reduce waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, and enable a circular economy. Spintex is uniquely positioned as a platform technology, to replace not only silk used in fashion, but also oil-derived synthetic fibers.

In 2021 the $25,000 runner-up was Aquammodate, (now Retein), a Swedish company that is creating water filtration systems, inspired by diatoms and aquaporin proteins. Their energy-efficient and selective technology produces high purity grade water in a single filter pass, desalination at any scale, and removes industrial pollutants and contaminants such as arsenic, microplastics, and pharmaceutical residues.

The 2022 Ray of Hope Prize was awarded to GreenPod Labs, an India-based agricultural biotechnology startup focused on tackling food loss problems in developing countries. By learning how fruits and vegetables naturally resist pest and fungal pathogens, GreenPod Labs showcases how learning from nature can solve both climate and societal problems.

About a third of all food produced goes to waste, and in countries like India, much of that waste occurs on the farm or during storage and transport of the food. GreenPod Labs’ product line works without the need for cold storage by integrating a deep understanding of crop physiology, effectively communicating with crops to activate their built-in defense mechanisms. Their product can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by 40 to 60% at ambient temperature and conditions. By focusing on markets in India and sub-Saharan Africa, this solution has the ability to solve some of the largest environmental and social challenges.

Second Place recognition for 2022 went to German-based Fusion Bionic, which has developed a cutting-edge laser technology capable of integrating biomimetic micro and nanostructures on a variety of material surfaces. Today's surface finishing technologies rely largely on ecologically harmful manufacturing processes, such as chemical etching (e.g. consumer electronics), sand blasting (e.g. medical), and coating solutions (e.g photovoltaics). Fusion Bionic’s Direct Laser Interference Patterning (DLIP) technology enables functional surface texture solutions inspired by natural surface structures such as those found on lotus leaves, shark skin, and moth eyes, to name a few. As Runner-Up, Fusion Bionic was awarded $25,000 to support their novel solution.

The 2023 Ray of Hope Prize was awarded to Sparxell, a UK-based startup creating the next generation of colors and effects with vibrant, metal-like pigments, all from plant-based cellulose. By utilizing cellulose in pigment creation, Sparxell is showing how nature can color our world without the harmful environmental and societal effects of mined and synthetic minerals.

Sparxell has developed the first environmentally sustainable, non-toxic pigments, glitters, sequins and films. Inspired by structural color found in nature, such as that of a butterfly wing or peacock feather, their patented manufacturing technique transforms cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) into uniformly reflective, highly dispersible particles with state-of-the-art performance. The pigments are a fully biodegradable, easier to source alternative with an unlimited range of vibrant colors. Because they can tune the structural color pigments to reflect specific bands of light, their pigments even enable new types of color. All this is possible while adhering to the recent EU regulations on microplastics like glitter.

The 2023 runner up recognition went to Canada-based Anodyne Chemistries, which uses nature’s catalysts, enzymes, to solve the chemical industry’s reliance on fossil fuels, replacing high temperature petrochemistry with a sustainable bioelectric process. Currently, the chemical industry is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions. Transforming this sector is key to moving away from a fossil-fuel-based economy and to achieving net-zero targets.