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Biomimics say San Diego could be hub on new industry

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From airplane wings to fan blades to the eye black athletes wear to deflect the sun, mankind has been modeling its products after the natural world since it started making products in the first place.

There are some scientists and entrepreneurs, however, who think people aren’t looking to nature enough. If we more closely adhered to the patterns seen in nature, they reason, we could make everything from boats to cell phones more adaptable, energy efficient and cheaper.

A group of these scientists met in San Diego recently to discuss the future of what they call “biomimicry,” the discipline of studying nature and applying it to human innovation. They said there are limitless business opportunities in biomimicry, and that San Diego -- with its strong foundation in both life science and technology -- has the potential to become a hub of what could be a burgeoning sector.

“It is the wave of the future,” Jay Harman, president and chief executive officer of Pax Scientific said of biomimicry. “It is going to be the basis of all industries.”

Harman has a reason to tout the potential of biomimicry -- he’s built his own business on it. Pax Scientific is an umbrella company for a series of smaller businesses that make a variety of products based in biomimicry. One makes fans and boats; another makes refrigeration and heating systems. Two others are involved in wastewater treatments.

The boats that Harman’s company makes are built to resemble the bodies of dolphins, and are made of a cheap, recycled plastic material that makes them advantageous for poor fishing communities that have lost their fleets in storms like the one that recently ravaged the Philippines.

Fans designed by Harman’s companies mimic the motions of whirlpools, which Harman said are among the most energy efficient natural phenomena. He said the fans have been proven to save significant amounts of energy, and therefore cost.

“If we could really understand what nature’s building and adapt to it, we can solve the world’s energy problem very, very rapidly -- I think within 10 to 20 years,” Harman said.

The key, in his opinion, is to copy more of how energy flows in the natural world. Fish, for example, don’t swim in a straight line, they move back and forth. Water doesn’t flow at straight angles, it branches. People, he said, need to copy this more often, in things like pipes and how boats are steered.

“Nature doesn’t like flat. It doesn’t like straight,” he said. “Because it doesn’t work.”

While Harman has already staked his career on biomimicry taking off, there are others who agree that it could become an important sector in the near future.

Cheryl Goodman, a director of marketing for Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, said the local wireless giant took a cue from butterflies when designing its latest cell phone screens.

“Most folks can’t see their phones outside in the sun. These (new) displays, because they’re reflective just like a butterfly’s wings, it actually looks better outside,” she said. “So you’re talking about an aesthetic appeal, but you’re also talking about battery power.”

“If you are delivering a need that exists already, and you can do it in a nature-based way, that’s just good business,” she added.

Lynn Reaser, the chief economic for Point Loma Nazarene University, said that biomimicry could be the bridge between the economy and environment that people have been looking for.

“That’s what excites me about the conservations taking place,” she said.

But Reaser and others also brought up the biggest roadblock for burgeoning biomimicry-based companies: funding. Securing funding is a problem for most startups, but it can be even tougher when you’re in a new field. This can be especially hard in San Diego, which lacks large venture capital firms.

Reaser suggested the biomimicry industry does more to educate the public on what it does. Harman said it shouldn't be that hard; after all, the ideas emerging from the sector are based on simple concepts people understand. For example, dolphins move well in the water, therefore boats based on dolphins will probably move well too.

Harman said that the growth in funding for so-called cleantech companies, like solar panel makers, has grown considerably in recent quarters, and that bodes well for companies based on biomimicry.

“It needs patient capital,” he said. “This is not the dot-com … This is hard work. But biomimics are hard-faced people. All of the ones that I know have a real passion for it.”

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