Three trends – crowd sourcing, greater entrepreneurship within academic scientific communities and scarcity of natural resources – have come together to create asknature.org. The website is an open source search engine of all of biology, organized by the functions that living things accomplish. At maturity, it will be a searchable on-line encyclopedia explaining how each living organism biologists have studied operates, organized by terms that describe what functions or problems an innovator/entrepreneur hopes to address.
Asknature’s goal, according to the website, “is to connect innovative minds with life’s best ideas, and in the process, inspire technologies that create conditions conducive to life. To accomplish this, we’re doing something that has never been done—organizing the world’s biological literature by function.”
If an engineer working in the water industry wants to understand how nature handles desalination, for example, Asknature.org will point her to many natural systems that accomplish this in ways far more efficient and effective than today’s mainstream engineering solutions. Expert scientists steeped in knowledge of specific natural forms create content for asknature.org. The success of the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, undoubtedly gave founders faith that a search engine for nature’s functions was feasible.
The effort capitalizes on the growing promise and success of biomimicry, “an emerging discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.” The quote comes from the website for the non-profit educational institute and for-profit consulting firm by the same name. Listen to science writer and educator Janine Benyus in this Ted Global 2009 video to understand more about the powerful movement she helped catalyze. Benyus coined the term biomimicry in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
Sharklet Technologies is an example of biomimicry in action. Hospital infections are a leading cause of extended stays and avoidable deaths. Sharklet sells coverings, mimicking the skin of a bacteria-free shark, that reduce infections in hospital and other healthcare settings. Two other new companies, Calera and Carbon Sciences, are leveraging their understanding of ocean coral’s mechanisms to create cement that consumes CO2, dramatically reducing the environmental impact of cement production. For other examples: Wikipedia, a crowdsourcing disruption of the encyclopedia industry, points to Nature’s Best “a compilation of the top hundred different innovations of animals, plants, and organisms that have been researched and studied by the Biomimicry Institute.”
Biomimicry’s business model – with a for-profit and non-profit arm – is a model we will see more of in the future. Solutions to our significant global issues will yield profitable returns to for-profit endeavors, as they undoubtedly do for Biomimicry Guild, the consulting business model. They may also demand a mission-driven non-profit endeavor to capture the solutions’ full potential, as we see in Asknature.org and other Biomimicry Institute’s non-profit efforts.
Cause-driven entrepreneurs – the world needs you.