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Biomimicry in Healthcare comes to Cleveland

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/19/19 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Plants & animals

The joke around the Biomimicry for Healthcare conference held by University Hospitals Ventures was, “We’re about 3.8 billion years behind.” Nature has that much knowledge stored in its DNA, and companies are slowly realizing that the 21st century path to resource efficiency is to unlock it. Resources include Great Lakes Biomimicry whose Director Trisha Brown explained that animals solve for complexity without burning fossil fuels and we can too.

<br />A grove of aspen trees form into a single organism by sharing a root system.

How biological systems solve problems is sustainable and self cleaning, Brown said. Companies using biomimicry in their research and development are learning to ask new questions.

For Mentor-based US Endoscopy that meant visiting the Raptor Center at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to study the grasping motion of a peregrine falcon, which led to a breakthrough in product design.

“The Natural History Museum is a wealth of biological information,” said Dr. Gavin Svenson, Director of Research and Collections at CMNH. “Extinction is not failure. Some of the most important lessons can be learned from the one million specimens and [curators] working just below our feet in the lab spaces.”

For Akron-based healthcare company, GoJo, Biomimicry fellow Emily Kennedy did a deep dive into how nature moves liquids. The dual pump action of the human heart led to an energy efficient design for its hand san pump. Kennedy graduated with a Ph.D in Biomimicry from University of Akron and now heads its Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center. She took part in a mini-pitch panel for start ups—her and fellow Biomimicry grad Bill Hsuing are raising capital for their company, Hegemon, which produced a proof of concept on its hedgehog inspired football helmet technology.

Kip Lee, who heads UH Ventures, its tech transfer office, explained that UH was inspired by the turtle which, like many sea creatures, uses a small, magnetic charge for navigation, in launching its geo-positioning app to help patients and visitors navigate the hospital halls.

Biomimicry can do more than enhance a product design, said Dr. Peter Pronovost, Chief Clinical Transformation Officer at UH. He used the example of how red robins and blue titmouse adapted their beaks to pick through milk containers on the stoops of London. The blue tit survived as a species because it organized into groups. The same idea can be found in fractals, a repeating shape found everywhere in nature like fern leaves—they are identical in shape but vary in size—the perfect metaphor for companies that are open to learning.

“The way companies operate is the loudest voice in the room gets heard,” he said, suggesting that we would be better to follow the example of bee colonies. The Queen sends her drones to find the perfect home and, depending on how much they wiggle their bottoms determines which hive will get picked—after the other drones go in and give a second opinion.

“If I’m blind to what I don’t know, I won’t seek the answer,” Pronovost said, extending the animal metaphor that jellyfish have one long tentacle representing all we know, but also grow lots of smaller tentacles.

Healthcare could learn from nature in curing diseases.

“We need to be more like Aspens than like Maple trees,” Pronovost said, pointing out how a grove of Aspen trees form a line of communication through a singular root system. “We have to be open and humble to learn.”

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