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Thursday, Feb 9, 2023
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Technology Gone Wild

Jacobs, Viterbi, Brandes and … Mother Nature?

Yes, there’s a new name that could be taking a prominent place in San Diego’s economic story.

The San Diego Zoo’s Centre for Bioinspiration is looking to use Mother Nature to find solutions that industries can use to make things lighter, more efficient or to reduce waste and through this process possibly create the next big regional economic cluster.

The center’s nature-centered approach is in need of some nurturing. Its managing director is looking for financiers to provide $20 million in startup funding to support early development of such projects.

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Larry Stambaugh, managing director at the now 2-month-old Centre for Bioinspiration, said the zoo’s new enterprise looks at things that already work efficiently in nature to create marketable products and more sustainable technologies.

“We will take existing knowledge of plants and animals and look for adaptations in nature that may have practical use,” Stambaugh said.

The concept, widely known as “biomimicry,” has already captured the attention of scientists, engineers, designers and others.

A 2010 study commissioned by San Diego Zoo Global, the not-for-profit organization which operates the zoo, suggests that the center could become the next major economic driver for San Diego — creating thousands of jobs and companies.

According to the study, conducted by the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, part of Point Loma Nazarene University, biomimicry could contribute $300 billion to the U.S. GDP in 15 years, while also providing an additional $50 billion in environmental savings by conserving natural resources and reducing CO2 pollution.

Furthermore, biomimicry could account for 1.6 million U.S. jobs by 2025, according to the study. In San Diego, the exploration of biomimicry could generate 2,100 jobs, including biologists, naturalists and other scientists, adding $325 million to San Diego’s gross regional product and $162 million in total personal income by 2025.

Stambaugh said most of the knowledge about plants and animals is held in the minds of botanists, scientists, animal keepers and others working at the zoo.

While the zoo has been advising companies for years on finding nature-inspired solutions during fee-based workshops, the center has been created with the goal to commercialize promising technologies.

Ruprecht von Buttlar, vice president of business creation and development at Connect, a technology and life sciences group, said the zoo laid the groundwork for the center two years ago.

Part of the plan included the creation of the Entrepreneurial Opportunity Council, now called BRIDGE — business, research, innovation, development, governance and education. Its members include Connect, the City of San Diego, Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego State University, UC San Diego and the University of San Diego.

“The council was looking at ways for the zoo to commercialize some of the technologies they had knowledge about,” said von Buttlar, who served on the advisory board to create the center’s business model. He will continue to advise the center on strategies to commercialize nature-inspired technologies.

Under the business model, the Bioinspiration Centre will license intellectual property to companies looking at nature for solutions to a particular problem. The center will also approach companies with nature-inspired solutions while partnering with other zoos and botanical gardens to develop projects for the center and work together on technology transfers.

Moreover, the center will also work closely with the local scientific community, including academic and research institutions, to do the early research needed before a technology is ready to be licensed to companies for further development.

“We will identify expertise in all fields — architecture, engineering, biology and chemistry — and pull them in on projects,” Stambaugh said. “This way, the center doesn’t have to invest in manpower. I can get access to experts and inexpensive technology to finish some of the early development,” he said.

While some technologies may only take months to develop, he said, others, including plants that may have applications for drugs or medical devices, would take years to develop and require approval from the FDA.

It Won’t Develop Products

While the center will never develop actual products, von Buttlar said, the potential applications are plentiful.

“If you think about the threads of applications, you quickly understand that they could go into life sciences, consumer products, sports equipment and anything you can imagine,” von Buttlar said.

Existing companies have already been inspired by such technologies.

San Diego-based wireless technology giant Qualcomm Inc.’s MEMS Technologies Mirasol display is based on the concept of the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing. It is the first full-color display that is readable in sunlight and uses low power.

Another company, Interface FLOR, based in LaGrange, Ga., sells a carpet that mimics the random colors naturally found in forest floors. Because each carpet square is made without the need for exact replication, it’s more cost-effective to make and to install, according to a study.

Stambaugh said he is in talks with several companies about potential applications, but wouldn’t disclose company names. He said he also plans to talk to venture capitalists to raise funds.

Ivor Royston, founding managing partner at Forward Ventures, a San Diego-based venture capital group focusing on pharmaceutical products and medical devices, hasn’t looked into the center’s work specifically. But, he said that many people worldwide are looking at the concept of biomimicry in various ways.

“If the zoo has a special collection of medicinal plants, it could be valuable (for potential applications in drugs),” Royston said.

But there are no guarantees for commercial applications, he said.

The authors of the study said that investors should be attracted to biomimicry, because of the prospect for rapid sales growth and high rates of return.

Philanthropy First?

However, von Buttlar said that philanthropists will likely put up the seed money with venture capitalists wanting to see some proof of concept first before funding projects.

Still, both von Buttlar and Stambaugh remain positive that it’s only a matter of time for the Centre for Bioinspiration to create another major industry cluster in San Diego.

“San Diego is the most entrepreneurial community in the world,” Stambaugh said. “We have the tremendous benefit to have all the universities, research institutions, clean-technology, defense and Connect we can collaborate with around projects,” he said.

“The Centre for Bioinspiration will create a totally new industry cluster that will be replicated all across the world,” von Buttlar said.

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