When was the last time you had to pull a burr off your clothing? What a hassle.

VelcroBut when George de Mestral, an electrical engineer, saw burrs on his dog while taking a walk one day, he was anything but annoyed. He had an epiphany. What was nature showing him?

The answer was Velcro.

When you are walking barefoot on the beach, the last thing you want to step on is a jelly fish.

But, when a graduate student studied a jelly fish, he saw something far from dangerous. He saw long, sticky tentacles that could grab prey and other food particles from the water. Soon he and his professor were designing a microfluidic chip lined with long, tentacle-like strands of DNA that bind a protein on the surface of leukemia cells.

“If you pluck out these cells, you have a direct indicator of what the cancer looks like,” says Jeffrey Karp, co-director of the Center for Regenerative Therapeutics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Then you can screen drugs to get those that will have the greatest impact.” Doctors might also be able to detect such cells during the earliest stages of metastatic cancer, when it’s more readily treatable.

How nature inspires technology is rich with other examples.

kingfisherEver watch a kingfisher dive into the water to capture a fish? The surface barely ripples. What invention did that observation kindle?

Ever wonder how a mussel can attach itself to the edge a marsh’s peat and survive not just endless tides, but also harsh storms? What did that observation lead to?

The next time you see a whale or hear about a shark sighting or eat an oyster or run away from a bee, imagine how each has inspired life-changing innovations.

This is the world of biomimicry.

Partnering with Cape Cod Museum of Natural History

Now, through a novel partnership between the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and Biomimicry New England, you can enter a world of endless possibility. Take a journey from observation to imagination; from discovery to creativity; from innovation to actual commercialization.

This entrepreneurial path is as spiritual as it is scientific, says Peter Lawrence, founder and director of Biomimicry New England.

Lawrence sees Cape Cod as a cornucopia of biomimicry. Inspiration is everywhere – in Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic, in the sky, in our estuaries and marshes. So, when he met Robert Dwyer, president and executive director of the museum in Brewster, he was inspired.

“Bob not only wanted to curate an exhibit. He is intent on having the museum provide an enduring, holistic understanding of biomimicry; to create sustainable space and resources to illustrate and understand the endless link between nature and innovation,” said Lawrence, who previously founded the Corporate Design Foundation. Its mission is to “improve the quality of life and the effectiveness of organizations through design.”

Now, Lawrence teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he received his degree in architecture. Most recently, he recruited one of his classes to develop a first-ever Cape Cod Biomimicry exhibit that you can enjoy at the natural history museum. Twelve students each studied one specific innovation.

“This is new for the museum, and is very exciting,” explains Lawrence. “Not only is there this exhibit, but also the museum can connect it year round right outside its doors, right in the middle of Cape Cod nature. It’s a living museum that can be experienced by people of all ages.”

“Why now?” Lawrence was asked. What has triggered the recent popularity of niomimicry?

“It’s actually not new,” he explains. “We always have been learning from nature. Indigenous people through the ages have fashioned everything from clothing to medicines directly from observing nature. It’s only been in the last century or two that we have shifted away from nature and become more engineer driven, thinking we can engineer our way out of anything.”

inuitsLawrence refers to the Inuit people. They realized that the thing they had the most of in their world was ice. So they built their homes from it. They even located ice caves where polar bears hibernated and designed the thickness of their igloos by mimicking the cave’s walls.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks are replete with his observations of nature, noted Lawrence. The Wright Brothers devoted time to observing soaring birds, especially how they controlled flight. “That was their competitive edge over better funded competitors.”

A main reason biomimicry is flourishing now is the leap between innovation and commercialization, Lawrence said. Biomimicry not only can sustain our planet, it also can be profitable.

The exhibition he and his students designed at the Museum of Natural History illuminates that link very clearly. Each innovation is connected to an actual company that has risked significant capital to bring product to the market.

“Nature has been our best laboratory for billions of years. There are incredible lessons for us to learn by observing,” said Lawrence, especially as we grapple with the potentially catastrophic impacts of global warming.

Many of the most powerful and successful examples of biomimicry relate to energy efficiency and savings, he noted. “There’s no waste in nature. What industry doesn’t want to eliminate waste?”

For Lawrence, it’s about life’s principles.

How did nature solve this problem?

Why does nature do what it does?

“Answering these basic questions requires in-depth understanding. We may not be able to mimic nature exactly, but we can get very close to the same results. It’s not copying nature. It’s achieving a deeper understanding not just about what nature does, but how and why.”

Adds Lawrence: “This is my way of addressing sustainability and climate change. We not only can mimic a particular natural phenomenon, but inevitably an entire ecosystem. Look at how nature operates, cooperates, collaborates; how different species talk to each other, exchange materials.”

Lawrence voices excitement about how his organization and the museum together can explore the Cape’s salt marshes, oyster reefs, local forests, waters’ edges to document the local ecosystem; what makes them resilient – despite human intervention.

oystersConsider that a single mature oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, noted Lawrence. How can we extrapolate that phenomenon to address clean water? The potential is huge.

“Let’s get the world to understand Biomimicry. If we follow nature, we will make the world a better place.”

Click here for a tour of biomimicry examples from the  Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.