When GOJO Industries researchers wanted to design new soap dispensers, they looked to redwood trees, skunks, blood circulation and other wonders of nature for inspiration.
By examining how fluids move in nature, the Akron-based company came up with several patent applications for dispensing systems that are more energy efficient than current models.
“Nature is one massive testing laboratory,” said Tom Marting, sustainability and life cycle analysis specialist at GOJO. “It’s been in operation for 4 billion years. If it doesn’t work in nature, it’s not going to be around very long.”
GOJO is among the early adopters of biomimicry, a relatively new field that involves studying nature to find solutions to human problems.
Several Northeast Ohio biomimicry experts shared insight about what the burgeoning field could mean for the region and beyond during a panel discussion at the Akron Roundtable Thursday afternoon at Quaker Station in downtown Akron.
Northeast Ohio is building a national reputation in biomimicry by boosting educational efforts on the topic and encouraging companies to embrace the concept, said Thomas Tyrrell, founder and chief executive of Great Lakes Biomimicry.
The Northeast Ohio collaborative brings together individuals, companies and other groups interested in turning the region into the world’s biomimicry capital and economic leader.
The group is working with Northeast Ohio schools to embed the study of innovation through nature within existing curriculum, started with elementary-aged students, said Ven Ochaya, director of the entrepreneurship and sustainability MBA programs at Baldwin Wallace University.
The idea behind biomimicry, he said, is to approach problems by asking, “What would nature do?”
During the panel discussion, Ochaya gave the example of how termites construct holes within their giant mounts to keep the temperature inside constant at about 87 degrees, despite dramatic outdoor temperature shifts throughout the day and night.
Architects are copying the termites’ method in their designs, he said. “Now they’re cutting down on heating and cooling costs by 90 percent.”
The University of Akron has what is believed to be the only biomimicry fellowship of its kind within its integrated biosciences Ph.D. program.
Students in the five-year fellowship are paired with a company, which uses their knowledge to help develop new products or processes based on nature. Some fellows also are working with local schools to help develop curriculum on the topic.
Biomimicry is “an important new tool” for innovation that is also environmentally friendly, said Peter Niewiarowski, professor of evolutionary biology and integrated biosciences and director of the biomimicry fellowships.
“The things that biological systems create are inherently sustainable over the long haul,” he said.
GOJO was among the first four Northeast Ohio companies to support the biomimicry fellowship program.
Fellow Emily Kennedy spends two days a week within GOJO’s research and development department.
Kennedy brought ideas from nature to the team designing potential new dispenser systems, including one that uses 50 percent less energy than existing models.
“It’s a sustainability win and an innovation win,” she said.
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/CherylPowellABJ.