Creating Pure Colors the Rainbow Beetle Way

The rainbow weevil has distinctive colored spots on its body made up of nearly-circular scales arranged in concentric rings of different hues. (Photo courtesy National University of Singapore) Posted for media use.

The rainbow weevil has distinctive colored spots on its body made up of nearly-circular scales arranged in concentric rings of different hues. (Photo courtesy National University of Singapore) Posted for media use.

By Sunny Lewis

SINGAPORE, September 27, 2018 ( News) – Picture a unique color-generation mechanism in nature that has the potential to create cosmetics and paints with purer, more vivid hues, or create screen displays on phones or tablets that project the same true image when viewed from any angle.

The mechanism also can be used to make reflective cladding for optical fibers to minimize signal loss during transmission.

Scientists from Yale-NUS College in Singapore and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland found this mechanism by studying the wing casings [elytra] of a beetle – a snout weevil from the Philippines, Pachyrrhynchus congestus pavonius, known informally as the rainbow weevil.

Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Life Science Dr. Vinodkumar Saranathan led the study with Dr. Bodo Wilts from the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg.

Dr. Saranathan told reporters, “This is very exciting. I’ve never seen anything like this. The tremendous diversity of colors on this one bug.”

There are two ways to make color, Saranathan explained. Color can be obtained with pigments or dyes, or it can be made structurally, with no pigment involved, “the way the sky is blue,” he said. The colors that can be derived from the rainbow weevil are formed in the structural way.

Dr. Saranathan examined the rainbow-colored patterns in the rainbow weevil’s wing casings using high-energy X-rays, while Dr. Wilts performed detailed scanning electron microscopy and optical modelling.

They discovered that to produce the rainbow palette of colors, the weevil utilized a color-generation mechanism that has been found only in squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses, known for their color-shifting camouflage.

The rainbow weevil is distinct for the colored spots on its thorax and wing casings. These spots are made up of nearly-circular scales arranged in concentric rings of different hues, ranging from blue in the center to red at the outside, like a rainbow.

While many insects have the ability to produce one or two colors, it is rare that a single insect can produce such a wide spectrum of colors.

The scientists are now exploring the mechanism behind the natural formation of these color-generating structures, as current technology is unable to synthesize structures of this size.

“The ultimate aim of research in this field is to figure out how the weevil self-assembles these structures, because with our current technology we are unable to do so,” said Dr. Saranathan.

“The ability to produce these structures, which are able to provide a high color fidelity regardless of the angle you view it from, will have applications in any industry which deals with color production,” he explained.

“We can use these structures in cosmetics and other pigmentations to ensure high-fidelity hues, or in digital displays in your phone or tablet which will allow you to view it from any angle and see the same true image without any color distortion,” he said.

Saranathan and Wilts determined that the scales were composed of a three-dimensional crystalline structure made from chitin, the main ingredient in insect exoskeletons.

They found that the structure and volume of chitin in the exoskeleton of rainbow weevils allow the insects to produce a broad spectrum of colors.

The rainbow colors on this weevil’s scales are determined by two factors: the size of the crystal structure which makes up each scale, and the volume of chitin used to make up the crystal structure.

Larger scales have a larger crystalline structure and use a larger volume of chitin to reflect red light; smaller scales have a smaller crystalline structure and use a smaller volume of chitin to reflect blue light.

Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Life Science Dr. Vinodkumar Saranathan led the rainbow weevil study. September 2018 (Screengrab from video Yale-NUS)

Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Life Science Dr. Vinodkumar Saranathan led the rainbow weevil study. September 2018 (Screengrab from video Yale-NUS)

Dr. Saranathan, who has previously examined over 100 species of insects and spiders and catalogued their color-generation mechanisms, says this ability to simultaneously control both size and volume factors to fine-tune the color produced has never before been shown in insects, and given its complexity, is quite remarkable.

He explained, “It is different from the usual strategy employed by nature to produce various different hues on the same animal, where the chitin structures are of fixed size and volume, and different colors are generated by orienting the structure at different angles, which reflects different wavelengths of light.”

“Uncovering the precise mechanism of color tuning employed by this weevil has important implications for further structural and developmental research on biophotonic nanostructures,” the scientists write in their paper.

The study is published in the journal “Small,” a weekly peer-reviewed scientific journal covering nanotechnology.

Dr. Bodo Wilts from the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg with two other participants in the Living Light conference at Cambridge University, UK, April 2018 (Photo courtesy Moller Centre, Cambridge University via Twitter feed of Dr. Wilts)

Dr. Bodo Wilts from the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg with two other participants in the Living Light conference at Cambridge University, UK, April 2018 (Photo courtesy Moller Centre, Cambridge University via Twitter feed of Dr. Wilts)

Bodo D. Wilts et al, A Literal Elytral Rainbow: Tunable Structural Colors Using Single Diamond Biophotonic Crystals in Pachyrrhynchus congestus Weevils, Small (2018). DOI: 10.1002/smll.201802328

The research was partly supported though the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research “Bio-Inspired Materials” and the Ambizione program of the Swiss National Science Foundation to Dr. Wilts, and partly through a UK Royal Society Newton Fellowship, a Linacre College EPA Cephalosporin Junior Research Fellowship, and Yale-NUS College funds to Dr. Saranathan.

Featured Image: The rainbow weevil has distinctive colored spots on its body made up of nearly-circular scales arranged in concentric rings of different hues. (Photo courtesy National University of Singapore) Posted for media use.


Snakes Inspire New Class of Crawler Bots

Kirigami cutting has produced skin that a robot can use to propel itself along. (Image by Ahmad Rafsanjani/Harvard SEAS) Posted for media use

Kirigami cutting has produced skin that a robot can use to propel itself along. (Image by Ahmad Rafsanjani/Harvard SEAS) Posted for media use

By Sunny Lewis

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, February 22, 2018 ( News) – Harvard researchers have developed a robot modeled on snakeskin with soft robotic scales made using kirigami – an ancient Japanese paper craft that relies on cuts to change the properties of a material.

As the robot stretches, the flat kirigami surface is transformed into a 3D-textured surface, which grips like snakeskin and crawls along.

“These all-terrain soft robots could one day travel across difficult environments for exploration, inspection, monitoring and search and rescue missions or perform complex, laparoscopic medical procedures,” envisions the paper’s senior author, Dr. Katia Bertoldi, a professor of applied mechanics at Harvard University.

Bertoldi, who is a new associate faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, says this form of snake-inspired locomotion is something brand new. The ancient art of kirigami is inspiring a new class of materials.

“We believe that our kirigami-based strategy opens avenues for the design of a new class of soft crawlers,” Bertoldi said.

“It turns out that figuring out how structures can deform, fold, interact with light, and absorb energy has applications in a variety of fields, and it’s been exciting to see our lab’s work contribute to such a diverse array of advances,” she said.

The key to this new class of crawlers is in the shape and function of the scales of a snake’s skin.

As a snake moves, its scales grip the ground, propelling its body forward. Called friction-assisted locomotion, this type of movement is possible because of the shape and positioning of snake scales.

Now, a team of researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has developed a soft robot that uses the same principles of locomotion as a snake to crawl without any rigid components.

“There has been a lot of research in recent years into how to fabricate these kinds of morphable, stretchable structures,” says Ahmad Rafsanjani, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and first author of the paper, published Wednesday in the journal “Science Robotics.”

“We have shown that kirigami principles can be integrated into soft robots to achieve locomotion in a way that is simpler, faster and cheaper than most previous techniques,” Rafsanjani said.

Kirigami, from the Japanese word kiri, meaning “cut,” and kami, meaning “paper,” is a variation of origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.

The researchers started with a simple, flat plastic sheet. Using a laser cutter, they embedded an array of centimeter-scale cuts, of different shapes and sizes.

The team experimented with various-shaped cuts, including triangular, circular and trapezoidal. They found that trapezoidal cuts, which most closely resemble the shape of snake scales, give the robot a longer stride.

Once cut, the researchers wrapped the sheet around a tube-like elastomer actuator, which expands and contracts with air like a balloon.

When the actuator expands, the kirigami cuts pop out, forming a rough surface that grips the ground. When the actuator deflates, the cuts fold flat, propelling the crawler forward.

The researchers built a fully untethered robot with these capabilities. It has integrated on-board control, sensing, actuation and power supply packed into a tiny tail.

They tested the soft robot by letting it crawl on the Harvard’s campus. See a video of the robot’s test crawl at Harvard.

“We show that the locomotive properties of these kirigami-skins can be harnessed by properly balancing the cut geometry and the actuation protocol,” said Rafsanjani. “Moving forward, these components can be further optimized to improve the response of the system.”

This research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Citation: “Kirigami skins make a simple soft actuator crawl,” By Ahmad Rafsanjani, Yuerou Zhang, Bangyuan Liu, Shmuel M. Rubinstein and Katia Bertoldi. Science Robotics 21 Feb 2018: Vol. 3, Issue 15, eaar7555

Waste Mgt

Mimicking Nature to Defeat Climate Change

The free Cool Down B'More bus takes potentially overheated Baltimore residents to cooling centers. (Screengrab from video by Mimi Yang)

The free Cool Down B’More bus takes potentially overheated Baltimore residents to cooling centers. (Screengrab from video by Mimi Yang)

ATLANTA, Georgia, July 20, 2017 ( News) – Five teams of entrepreneurs from around the world have been chosen to participate in the newest cohort of the world’s only business accelerator program dedicated to bringing nature-inspired solutions to market.

These five winning solutions were selected from nearly 100 entries from 28 countries. All the teams entered the 2017 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, answering the call to apply biomimicry, nature-inspired design, to develop solutions to reverse or adapt to climate change.

A team from Mexico City has created Thermosmart, an approach that mimics the circulatory systems of elephants and alligators to boost efficiency in the heating and cooling of high-rise commercial buildings.

Another team from Bogotá, Colombia has invented Cooltiva, a system that takes advantage of the wind and the sun to regulate temperatures inside city residences using minimal energy.

A third team from Baltimore, Maryland has created Cool Down B’More, a network that connects low-income communities to designated cool spaces via an affordable transportation system. They did it by emulating the mechanisms of blue crab and bay grass and their mutual relationship within the ecosystem of Chesapeake Bay, on the U.S. Atlantic coast.

A fourth team from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has used winged seeds, bromeliads and forest leaf litter as the inspiration for Nucleário, a reforestation solution designed for remote and hard-to-reach areas of the Atlantic rain forest.

And a fifth team from Taipei, Taiwan looked to the ways that living organisms like baleen whales and African violet leaves collect micro particles to create Refish, a device that can be attached to vehicles to collect fine particulate matter right on the road without the need for electricity and motors to pump air as used in conventional air purifiers.

The winning teams will receive a cash prize and an invitation to enter the 2017-18 Biomimicry Accelerator, where they will spend the next year working with biomimicry and business mentors to prototype and test their designs.

The Biomimicry Accelerator experience culminates in the $100,000 Ray C. Anderson Foundation Ray of Hope Prize.

The Biomimicry Global Design Challenge is an annual competition that asks teams of students and professionals to address critical global issues with nature-inspired solutions. The challenge is hosted by the Biomimicry Institute , in partnership with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation.

The Ray C. Anderson Foundation has pledged $1.5 million over four years to support the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, a multi-year effort to crowdsource, support, and seed promising innovations inspired by nature.

Each year, the Institute and Foundation award the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize to the most viable prototype that embodies the radical sustainability principles of biomimicry.

The winning team will demonstrate the most viable biomimetic solution, including a functioning prototype, a tested business model, and customer validation.

The Ray of Hope Prize honors the legacy of Interface Founder and Chairman Ray Anderson, who funded the foundation upon his passing in 2011. Anderson was inspired by new approaches to centuries-old design and manufacturing techniques, and used them in his $1 billion, global carpet tile company. Anderson was known for his progressive policies on industrial ecology and sustainability.

There is also a student category in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge that offers cash prizes.

In the student category, the first-place winner is a team from California Polytechnic State University who designed a plant-inspired system that can be applied along freeways and main streets to capture and scrub carbon.

The second-place student team, from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, created a compostable patch that generates electricity by absorbing heat, inspired by the structure of the silk moth cocoon.

The third place winner in the student category is a team with members from the National Technical University of Athens, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and the Technical University of Crete who emulated coral calcification to create a design that sequesters carbon dioxide from the sea.

“Accelerating the path from idea to prototype to marketplace is our goal,” said John Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. “And we are excited about the potential for this new cohort to demonstrate viable and innovative solutions to our climate crisis.”

The goal is to show how biomimicry, one of “Fortune” magazine’s five business “Trends to ride in 2017,” can provide viable solutions to the current climate crisis.

Biomimicry Institute Executive Director Beth Rattner said, “This is what our Ray C. Anderson Foundation partnership makes possible, bringing these teams’ ideas from concept to functioning prototypes that are ready for field testing.”

A new round of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge will open in October 2017, also focused on climate change solutions. This will be another opportunity for teams to join and compete for the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize. Individuals and teams can learn more about the challenge at

Videos from each of the five winning teams are found on


Featured Images: Elephant in South Africa’s Sibuya Game Reserve, 2010. In hot conditions, elephants increase blood flow to the skin, creating areas that dissipate heat. (Photo by Jon Mountjoy) Creative commons license via Flickr

BioNurse: Generating Spaces for Life


Yareta plants live in the high altitude of the Andes Mountains. Some are estimated at 3,000 years old. (Photo by Pedro Szekely) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

by Sunny Lewis

MISSOULA, Montana, December 1, 2016 ( News) – A team from the Ceres Regional Center for Fruit and Vegetable Innovation in Chile has won the first-ever $100,000 Ray C. Anderson Foundation “Ray of Hope” Prize in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge .

The BioNurse team from Quillota, Chile created the BioPatch, a biomimicry solution that enhances soil’s capacity to retain water, nutrients, and microorganisms so that degraded land is restored for the next generation of crops.

At least 25 percent of the world’s soil is degraded, and the winning concept provides a new way to protect seedlings and restore soils to health, with inspiration from natural plant processes.

The BioNurse team was inspired by the way that hardy “nurse” plants like the yareta, ancient flowering plants in the high altitudes of Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, establish themselves in degraded soils and pave the way for new plant species to grow.

Many yaretas are estimated to be over 3,000 years old.

By mimicking biological principles, the BioNurse team’s design innovation provides a way to grow and protect new plants and ensure that the soil can be regenerated to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

The judges were impressed with the way that the BioNurse team utilized biomimicry on multiple levels,” said John Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. “Moreover, we believe in their potential to commercialize and scale the concept to achieve a significant impact in areas of the world where farming is limited due to poor soil.”

Ray C. Anderson (1934-2011), a Georgia native, was recognized as a leader in green business when he challenged his carpet company, Atlanta-based Interface, Inc., to reimagine itself as a sustainable company with a zero environmental footprint. His foundation funds projects that advance knowledge and innovation around environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Team BioNurse’s winning project aims to establish a first step that changes the course of the current “geomimetic agriculture” to a “biomimetic agriculture.”

Their design proposes a change in the fundamentals of agricultural food production, heading towards increasing soil health and vitality.

The team says their biomimetic method “emulates nurse plants in biologic communities.”

The physical, chemical and biological fertility concentration of their soil “comes from a continuous formation of a vivifying mass which transforms, recycles, composes and decomposes the organic matter and mineral elements, fluffing the ground to make it a real sponge, light and soft, rich in spaces for developing life.

The biomimetic method stands in contrast to the way that humans have opened and plowed the land throughout history, causing cracks and breaks in the soil.

This geomimetic system has taken a lot of fertility, energy and minerals from the soil, which in turn has released huge amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

The team’s biomimicry starts with a device they have called BioNurse, made of a biodegradable container and the appropriate biologic contents for each site.

The container is fabricated from corn stalks, utilizing a resource that otherwise would be burned as waste. It biodegrades after one season.

The team has demonstrated that the plants growing within the container will be capable of reproducing the same conditions in a natural way and, after one year, the soil will be productive again.


BioNurse Team members: front row: Camila Hernández, Camila Gratacos, back row from left: Nicolas Orellana, Victor Vicencio, Jean François Casal, Carlo Sabaini, Eduardo Gratacos (Photo courtesy Biomimicry Global Design Challenge) posted for media use.

The seven BioNurse Team members are: Camila Hernández, Camila Gratacos, Nicolas Orellana, Victor Vicencio, Jean François Casal, Carlo Sabaini, Eduardo Gratacos

The team had three objectives:

  • Restore degraded soils by carrying: biologically available energy, a high and diverse microbiological load, plants with rhizospheres rich in mycorrhizae, and detritus generators.
  • Create growing levels of food plants’ community structure with increased complexity and local biodiversity,
  • Improve the capacity of moisture retention and accumulation of energy and minerals available to be cycled.

Two principles — seeking harmony with nature and leveraging the power of business — are at the core of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge and the work of the Biomimicry Institute based in Missoula.

The Institute aims to “naturalize biomimicry in the culture by promoting the transfer of ideas, designs, and strategies from biology to sustainable human systems design.

A new round of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge has just launched, which offers another opportunity for teams to join and compete for the annual $100,000 “Ray of Hope” Prize.

The philanthropists at the heart of the Biomimicry Design Challenge take their inspiration from environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author Paul Hawken, who said, “Biomimicry directs us to where we need to go in every aspect in human endeavor.

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 Featured image: Green Patch III – Yareta plants. (Photo by Magnus von Koeller) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Bird Feathers Inspire ‘Structural’ Colors


By Sunny Lewis

SAN DIEGO, California, April 18, 2016 ( News) – Imagine a colorful T-shirt that never fades with washing, or a car that never needs a new coat of paint. Biomimicry already translated into nanomaterials in the lab could bring such marvels to market in the future.

Inspired by iridescent bird feathers that play with light, scientists at two American universities have created thin films of nanomaterials in a wide range of pure colors determined by physical structure rather than pigments or dyes.

Color determined by structure would never diminish in hue and could potentially be altered to satisfy anyone’s preference.

This research is among the first steps into the fledgling field of biomimicry, where scientists look for ways to improve human life by imitating the success of natural designs, processes and methods.

Here, researchers from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Akron in Ohio sought to recreate structural color patterns found in bird feathers to generate color without the use of pigments and dyes.

They identified melanosomes, tiny packets of melanin in the feathers, skin and fur of many animals, that can produce structural color when packed into solid layers, as they are in the feathers of some birds.


Melanin is a broad term for a group of natural pigments found in most organisms. In humans, melanin is the primary determinant of skin color. It is also found in hair and the pigmented tissue underlying the iris of the eye.

Melanins have diverse roles and functions in various organisms. The black feathers of birds owe their color to melanin; they are less readily degraded by bacteria than white feathers, or those containing other pigments.

A form of melanin makes up the ink used by many cephalopods, such as the ink that squids expel as a defense against predators.

Melanins also protect microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, against stresses that involve cell damage such as UV radiation from the sun.

Melanin protects against damage from high temperatures, chemical stresses, such as heavy metals and oxidizing agents, and biochemical threats, such as host defenses against invading microbes.

Structural color occurs through the interaction of light with materials that have patterns on a tiny scale reflecting light to make some wavelengths brighter and others darker.

In their laboratories these researchers get tiny packets of synthetic melanin to produce structural color, as in a bird’s feather, when they are packed into layers.

“We synthesized and assembled nanoparticles of a synthetic version of melanin to mimic the natural structures found in bird feathers,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego.

Gianneschi’s work focuses on nanoparticles that can sense and respond to the environment.

“We want to understand how nature uses materials like this, then to develop function that goes beyond what is possible in nature,” he said.

Gianneschi proposed the research project after hearing Dr. Matthew Shawkey, a biology professor at the University of Akron, describe his work on the structural color in bird feathers at a conference.

Shawkey details the benefits of structural color, saying, “Pigments are both financially and environmentally costly, and can only change color by fading. Structural colors can, in theory, be produced from more common, environmentally friendly materials and could potentially be changed depending on the environment or your whims.”

As for practical uses of this biomimetic discovery, the scientists are thinking about applications of these nanomaterials as sensors, photo-protectors, and the creation of a wide range of colors without using pigments.

Featured Image: The iridescent black feathers of birds such as this African starling are leading scientists to make nanomaterials of structural colors. (Photo by Steve Slater) Creative commons license via Flickr

Main image: The iridescent colors of peacock feathers hold clues to the creation of structural colors. (Photo by Mike Leary) Creative commons license via Flickr

Image 01: Male wood duck with iridescent feathers of many colors. (Photo by Cliffords Photography) Creative commons license via Flickr


Butterflies Teach Scientists How to Boost Solar Cell Efficiency

Butterflies Teach Scientists How to Boost Solar Cell Efficiency

By Sunny Lewis

PENRYN, Cornwall, UK, August 28, 2015 (Maximpact News) – The way a small white butterfly holds its wings has inspired technology expected to make solar power cheaper and up to 50 percent more efficient.

In its caterpillar stage the Cabbage White butterfly is a pest that eats its way through cabbage crops across Europe, North Africa, Asia, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

But University of Exeter scientists have seen past the pest stage to the butterfly stage.

The Cabbage White butterfly takes flight before other butterflies on cloudy days because its V-shaped wing position, known as reflectance basking, maximizes the concentration of solar energy on its thorax.

By mimicking this V-shaped posture the butterflies take to warm their flight muscles before take-off, and the structure of their wings, the researchers found that the power produced by dye-sensitized, thin-film solar cells can be increased by almost 50 percent.

“This proves that the lowly Cabbage White is not just a pest of your cabbages but actually an insect that is an expert at harvesting solar energy,” said Professor Richard ffrench-Constant, who conducts research into butterfly mimicry at the University of Exeter.

The V-shaped wing position is “strikingly similar to the V-trough solar concentrator which uses mirrored side walls to focus light towards a small area of photovoltaic material, thereby increasing the output power of any solar cell to which it is attached,” the scientists write.

The team found that the optimal angle by which the butterfly should hold its wings to increase temperature to its body was around 17 degrees. This angle increased the insect’s body temperature by 7.3 degrees Centigrade compared to when the wings were held flat.

A dye-sensitized solar cell is a low-cost, thin film solar cell. This photoelectrochemical system is based on a semiconductor formed between a photo-sensitized anode and an electrolyte.

To create more efficient solar cells, the researchers designed a novel photoanode structure, the part of the solar cell that absorbs the sun’s energy, using the wings of the Cabbage White as biotemplates.

Photoanode structures with arranged ridges and ribs made of nanoparticles were synthesized onto a fluorine-doped glass substrate coated with tin oxide.

Analysis indicated that the light-harvesting efficiencies of these photoanodes were higher than the normal titania photoanode without butterfly biotemplates.

The scientists replicated the wings to develop a new, lightweight reflective material for solar energy production.

“Biomimicry in engineering is not new,” said the study’s lead author Professor Tapas Mallick. “However, this truly multidisciplinary research shows pathways to develop low-cost solar power that have not been done before.”

Increasing solar cell efficiency by 50 percent is a big deal as the world weans itself off power generated by coal, oil and gas, which raises the planetary temperature.

Because there are many different types of efficiencies when it comes to solar cells, it can be difficult for non-specialists to do direct comparisons.

Currently, the official accredited World Record Efficiency is 14.1 percent, but efficiencies exceeding 15 percent are being achieved in the laboratory, and experts forecast efficiencies beyond 20 percent for the near future.

The paper, “White butterflies as solar photovoltaic concentrators,” by Katie Shanks, Dr Senthilarasu Sundaram, Professor Richard ffrench-Constant and Professor Tapas Mallick from the University of Exeter, is published in the journal “Scientific Reports,” online here.

Blog image: Cabbage White butterfly on yellow milkweed, North Carolina, USA (Photo by John Flannery, June 2015 creative commons license, Featured Image: Cabbage White butterfly Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand (Photo by Troup Dresser, July 2011 creative commons license,

Bringing Biomimicry to Market: Impact Investing Inspired by Nature

BringingBiomimicrytoMarket-ImpactInvestingInspiredbyNature_maximpact.154240By Marta Maretich @maximpactdotcom

Biomimicry has captured the world’s imagination. From the moment Janine Benyus; seminal book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature appeared in 2002, hopes have been high for this new approach to design and engineering. Elegant, poetical and paradigm-changing, biomimicry and its sibling discipline, bio-inspired design, spoke to our hopes for harnessing the elegant solutions of nature for a more sustainable future.

Twelve years on, where are biomimicry and bio-inspired design today? And what opportunities are there for impact investors looking for ways to place capital in innovative, green and sustainable nature-based solutions?

Biomimicry success stories

There have been some notable successes in bio-inspired products in recent years. Self-cleaning paint incorporating the lotus effect; the ability of the structure of the lotus leaf to repel dirt; came onto the market as early as 1999. Today world wide annual sales of products using the lotus effect are now over $100 million with Degussa, Ferro and Sto some of the companies reaping the benefits.

Another example is the sharkskin swimsuit, famously banned from competition for giving unfair advantages to swimmers with its scale-mimicking technology. Calera, a company that specializes in converting carbon dioxide into green “reactive cements” to replace traditional cement has made its name with a bio-inspired process for capturing CO2. The high tech industry is turning out products incorporating bits of bio-inspired technology, too, especially in the fields of robotics and computer science. But the best-known, and most commercially successful biomimetic design of all time must be Velcro, the fastening system based on the structure of the cockleburr that is now incorporated into countless products including clothing, medical equipment and packaging worldwide.

These successes continue to inspire a generation of scientists. Research and development in this area have skyrocketed over the last ten years with the number of peer-reviewed papers now reaching about 3000 annually. According to the Da Vinci Index, a database tracking scholarly activity, interest in biomimicry has increased tenfold since the millennium. Patents for biometric innovations are also up: 67 were issued in 2012 as compared to just 3 in 2000. Biomimetic, biometric and bio-inspired research activity is buzzing in labs and universities around the world. AskNature, a database of projects under investigation shows the depth and breadth of bio-inspired research.

The successes of bio-inspired products and processes is also motivating product developers, entrepreneurs and major corporations to find ways to make something of the findings coming out of the science. Today proponents can be found in many places in the commercial world, including some surprising ones such as the Los Angeles Auto show with its biomimicry and mobility design challenge.

Market challenges

There have certainly been breakthroughs in finding applications for bio-inspired products and enthusiasm for the concept remains high. Yet even fans of biomimicry admit there haven’t been as many commercial successes as they’d like. This is because there are still significant challenges in bringing biomimicry to market, as green and sustainable business blogger Joel Makower has identified. Part of the problem is that bio-inspired innovations often arise in laboratories a long way from the marketplace (there’s a similar problem in cleantech). Their promises are often conceptual and can take years or even decades to find a viable commercial use.

Even the most brilliant ideas take a while to catch on, too; and they often require a champion. As Zygote Quarterly editor Tom McKeag points out in this blogpost, biomimicry’s greatest success stories, Lotusan and Velcro were far from overnight successes and only made it to prominence “because of the long and dogged efforts” of the individuals who discovered them. Similarly, despite ten years of effort and huge latent potential, materials like spider silk and adhesives materials inspired by gecko feet have so far failed to find their way to market.

This has led to some frustration from mainstream investors who were attracted to the high-tech mystique of biomimicry and expected it to produce quick financial results. As ethical finance thought leader Hazel Henderson commented in a recent interview, “the term “biomimicry” is sufficiently mysterious and obscure that: a) they’ve never heard of it and they don’t know anything about it, and b) it’s sort of intriguing because of the fact that a lot of corporations see this as the leading edge of innovation.” She went on to predict that, “a lot of trustees and pension fund beneficiaries are going to be knocking on the door of asset managers in institutional endowments and saying: “Hey, why aren’t we investing in biomimicry-type companies?”

Impact investors are starting to ask the same question. But, as Henderson implies, it may not be the right one.

Tapping into the ecosystem

Biomimicry and bio-inspired design is best thought of as a methodology and a framework for innovating. This means it’s not necessarily about individual businesses or single products or even technologies. Rather, it’s about a whole new approach to the process of development that depends on a rich ecosystem of research, learning, innovation and cross-sector collaboration.

To successfully engage with the field, impact investors need to look deeper into this ecosystem and ask themselves better questions: What is the best way for impact investors to put their money into beneficial bio-innovation? What role can impact finance play in speeding the process of bringing bio-inspired products and technologies to the marketplace?

New ways of thinking about investing in this sector are already taking shape. To address the oversimplified attitude toward biomimicry investing, Henderson and Benyus have collaborated on a set of criteria for identifying, working with and investing in companies that adhere to ethical principles in biomimicry finance. The approach recognizes that bio-inspired products and processes aren’t necessarily sustainable or socially beneficial; not all funds touting bio-based financial products operate according to green principles. Based on Henderson’s Life Principles, the criteria are aimed at helping investors find finance companies that place capital in biomimicry-related ventures in ethical ways.

Then there are the organizations actively building links between biomimicry research and the market. The Centre for Bioinspiration is a California-based for-profit enterprise that works directly with businesses to incorporate bio-inspired and biomimetic approaches into their products. It supports research into the economic landscape for biomimicry, tracking the growth and development of the sector. It also hosts an annual conference that focuses on the link between bio-technologies and products and the marketplace. This work is helping ease the transition from lab to market for new technologies and products, while it offers companies practical ways to incorporate bio-inspiration into product design.

Biomimicry 3.8, a social enterprise and nonprofit hybrid—and a certified BCorp—has proven that the concept of biomimicry is itself a marketable commodity. Founded by Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, Biomimicry 3.8 this cross-sectoral venture has developed diverse revenue streams through delivering consulting services to businesses, publicly-funded institutions and governments. At the same time, it pursues its core mission of propagating biomimicry by providing thought leadership for the industry, keeping an index of current research projects, mapping the biomimicry community and acting as an information hub for professionals and the public. It provides materials and training for teachers along with resources like the Biomimicry Design Lens, a framework for incorporating nature’s processes into design, available as a free download.

Biomimicry 3.8’s work is helping keep the issue of bio-inspired innovation on the front burner for researchers, commercial industries and the public while the industry matures. In this way, it acts as a champion for the young bio sector in a way that could hold lessons for other young sectors such as impact investing.

Partly because of this work, biomimicry and bio-inspiration continues to grip the popular imagination and inspire books, reports, blogs, magazines and documentaries (many of them available through the Newsstand). Zygote Quarterly, edited by Tom McKeag is a prize-winning online magazine that offers cutting edge information on biomimicry research in a beautifully designed format. The Nature of Business by Giles Hutchins applies the principles of biomimicry to a new business paradigm, as does Katherine Collins; The Nature of Investing. The popular Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart brings biomimetism into the debate about recycling.

More than 100 years after the invention of Velcro, the taste for biomimicry is keener than ever, thanks to its devoted proponents and the innovations that have made it out of the labs and into the public arena. More than a trend, biomimicry is a movement and a framework for innovation and change. Impact investors who want to join this movement have the opportunity to connect with it in its early stages and support it as it grows.

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Better Names for Impact Investing (and other insights from Hazel Henderson)

by Marta Maretich

Hazel Henderson has never really liked the term “impact investing”.

“All investments have impacts,” she told us. “I pointed this out to the authors of the original paper published by the Rockefeller Foundation. Some of these impacts include blowing the tops off mountains and spilling oil in the Gulf of Mexico!”

Not mincing words is one of the characteristics that has made Henderson a thought leader in the ethical investing movement. Futurist, evolutionary economist, worldwide syndicated columnist, consultant on sustainable development and author of many books, articles and blogs, Henderson has turned her personal vision of a new kind of capitalism into a remarkable career spanning four decades.

Her CV is beyond distinguished, including 22 years of service on the Advisory Council of the Calvert Social Investment Fund and membership in the Social Investment Forum and the Social Venture Network. She founded Ethical Markets Media and won a slew of international honors for her work. She is the creator of the Green Transition Scoreboard, a tool that tracks the private financial system for all green sectors worldwide since 2007 (current total is $5.2 trillion) and measures progress “as defined by the triple bottom line of planet, people and profits”. Follow #greenscore on Twitter.

Taking a measured view of impact

This stellar track record speaks of Henderson’s lifelong commitment to positive change in the area of beneficial finance and socially responsible investing. It also makes her a hard person to impress. While the world gets more excited about the potential of impact investing to solve its many problems, her support for the practice is tempered with realism.

“While I applaud the approach and achievements so far of this kind of investing,” she says, “I don’t see it as a new “asset class” since it must operate within all the old and still failing models of mainstream investing. And, as I have discussed with many of impact investing’s best practitioners in our TV series Transforming Finance the term “impact investing” simply adds to the confusion! Why not call it “positive impact investing” and thus make its good intentions clear?”

She’s right of course

Henderson makes several important points here; ones borne out by the latest research into impact investing.

One is that impact investing is not a distinct new field of investing, or “asset class”, but an investment approach that spans asset classes. For Henderson, who has been at the forefront of the worldwide movement to diversify the financial methods that can be used to achieve social and environmental benefit, it’s only one tool in the larger toolbox that now (thanks to her and social benefit investment pioneers like her) includes a full spectrum of approaches: microfinance, social entrepreneurship, social impact bonds, venture philanthropy, catalytic capital, responsible investing, patient capital and so on.

Another of Henderson’s points is that not all impact is good impact: “blowing the tops off mountains,” as she puts it, definitely comes into the bad impact category.

The principle here is that intentionality matters when it comes to impact investing. Obviously, the idea is to avoid bad impacts; that goes without saying. But it’s not enough for good impacts to happen by accident, either, or as mere byproducts of doing business. To be authentic impact businesses, enterprises have to be built around the positive impacts they exist to create (along with profits).

And it’s not enough to cross our fingers and hope for positive impact without bothering to find out whether it’s really happening. Positive impact goals; and the metric processes that measure them; need to form part of the business plan of impact businesses. Otherwise, there’s nothing to distinguish them from ordinary businesses and no reason for impact investors (who currently complain of a shortage of good opportunities) to commit their capital.

Keeping sight of a higher purpose

Finally; and perhaps most importantly; Henderson’s comment reflects her belief that we need to do more than just tinker with the way world finance works.

Impact investing may be a good thing, but its dependence on the “old and still failing models of mainstream investing” mean that the approach is, after all, nothing so revolutionary as is sometimes claimed. More precisely, it’s an adaptation of what we’ve had in the past, using familiar techniques and market models, though in new contexts. As such, it doesn’t go far enough to satisfy Henderson, whose organization’s mission is: “to foster the evolution of capitalism beyond current models based on materialism, maximizing self-interest and profit, competition and fear of scarcity”. Henderson proposes to achieve this by reforming markets and metrics while growing the green economy worldwide.

Henderson’s vision for the future of finance is more radical than that of the elite group that gave impact investing its name. Where they hoped to harness the power of capital for good, Henderson wants to alter the very nature of capitalism, transforming it into something that better serves the needs of humanity and the planet. This higher purpose makes it unlikely that she will champion any single approach to changing the way we invest. In one example of her far-reaching strategy, Henderson has partnered with the company Biomimicry 3.8 to create a set of Principles of Ethical Biomimicry Finance, now available on license to responsible asset managers.

Henderson is well placed to take the long view of various social investing movements. Her comment serves a reminder that impact investing is just beginning to prove itself. The jury is still out, and it’s probably a good thing the early hype seems to be dying down. However keen we are on impact investing (and we are keen) it is not a silver bullet for solving the world’s problems.

At the same time, it’s a good thing that the sector is growing. More deals, more collaboration and more experimentation may serve to take us closer to a time when all businesses are, as Henderson would have it, positive impact businesses.

For more about Hazel Henderson see this interview in Green Money Journal.

Hazel has recently released Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age: From Economism to Earth Systems Science from the UK’s Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW) and Tomorrow’s Company. It will appear soon in the US from Cosimo Publications, NY.

New Biomimicry Deals Seeking Investment

Biomimicry, a design discipline that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, is an emerging field that is increasingly catching interest from impact investors and social businesses.

According to The Global Biomimicry Efforts: An Economic Game Changer report, biomimicry-based goods and services could account for approximately $300 billion of U.S. GDP by 2025. The sector could also provide another $50 billion in terms of mitigating the depletion of various natural resources and reducing CO2 pollution.

Many established and emerging biomimicry companies are now looking for organizations that could fund, invest in, and support their operations. At Maximpact, we are excited about this trend because we believe biomimicry is here to stay and will represent an important part of future social business innovation.

Below we list three new biomimicry impact deals currently seeking investment on Maximpact platform. A complete list and contact details can be viewed when you register:

Water treatment technology inspired by aquatic plant systems

This company is a leader in natural, cost-effective, and sustainable water treatment technologies. It designs, builds and operates an all-natural, sustainable technology by harnessing nature’s power to restore polluted lakes, streams, and estuaries.

Its products have already been demonstrated on pilot and commercial scales. Clients in the pipeline include a well-known mining company and an environmentally responsible mixed-use real estate development company.

Wastewater and water pollution treatment inspired by biological processes that operate in nature

The company has over 30 years experience with natural wastewater treatment design, general aquatic management, and project supervision. Its design harnesses the biological processes that operate in nature taking the form of an engineered treatment system to successfully meet discharge standards and permitting requirements.

The company is a pioneer in the use of natural systems for the removal of chemicals, petroleum hydrocarbons, endocrine disruptors, and other detrimental water pollutants. They envision the remediation of impaired natural water bodies and soils as a major part of their future work.

Fans inspired by the whale’s fins

This company produces fans and turbines and makes extensive use of digital technology which extends from design specification, through CNC machining and fabrication. Their one of a kind fans use a new kind of airfoil which is more energy efficient and much quieter.

The performance of the fan’s blades is ideal for a product that can save operational energy consumption while reducing heating and cooling costs significantly by de-stratifying and mixing the different layers of air in rooms. The company is now ready to take the product to the next level, instead of just designing fans and turbine elements they also want to move into manufacturing and sales.

For further resources on Biomimicry we highly recommend reading the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Jamine M.Benyus, seeing her TED talk or visiting Maximpact’s newsstand which holds additional industry resources.

[Image credit:123RF Stock Photo]