Mother Nature left us the blueprints. Now, the Biomimicry Institute says humans need to develop products based on her designs in order to solve our biggest problems.

That's the idea behind biomimicry, the effort to solve human challenges by designing sustainable solutions based on processes already found in nature. And that's the basis for the Biomimicry Institute, a national nonprofit founded in Missoula by biologist and author Janine Benyus. The term was popularized by her 1997 book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature."

It was based in Missoula for years, eventually morphing into a remote team nationwide. A consulting firm, Biomimicry 3.8, lives in Missoula.

"Our soul and our heart is Missoula-based because our founder is from there," said communications director Erin Connelly. "It's where our roots are."

Last week, the institute announced the winners of this year's Global Design Challenge: first place on the student side, six high school girls from Glenforest Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada; in the open category for professionals, seven winners from New York; La Jolla, California; Baltimore; Woodland, California; Santiago, Chile; London; and Bogota, Colombia.

The students' creation, Stillae, is a device that uses solar-powered spinning blades to capture water in the air before it fully evaporates. The water can then be used to irrigate crops in both developed and developing countries. The high-schoolers were "inspired by the resilience of cacti," according to their video describing the device.

Organisms such as the Socotra desert rose, lichens and fogstand beetle can survive in water-scarce regions.

"In places where water is scarce or access to water is limited, some plants have incredible abilities to thrive off of limited rainfall," student Amy Lu, head of construction, said in the video. "We discovered that lichens found ways to adapt that are more innovative than any modern engineer."

The student winners will receive cash prizes. The winners in the open category have been invited to enter the 2016-2017 Biomimicry Accelerator, a year of work testing and prototyping their design that culminates in the chance at the $100,000 Ray C. Anderson Foundation Ray of Hope Prize – and bringing their prototypes "from concept to commercialization."

"These teams really have an opportunity to hone their designs, to make sure it works in the real world," Connelly said. 

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It started as a student-only challenge seven years ago.

"It started really small – a handful of students. It was really designed as a learning challenge, an opportunity to learn biomimicry by practicing it in action," Connelly said. "Along the way we were realizing that hey, there's a lot of these designs students are coming up with that are really viable. And having more biomimetic options in the marketplace, that would be huge and have an enormous impact on design across the board."

So two years ago, the institute partnered with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation to restructure the challenge, opening it up to both students and professionals worldwide. The foundation pledged $1.5 million to the competition during the course of four years.

"It's continuing to be a learning opportunity, but it's also working on developing an artery, so to speak, to allow biomimetic innovations to get to the marketplace," she said.

The Ray of Hope prize will be awarded "to the most viable prototype that embodies the radical sustainability principles of biomimicry."

Likely the most recognizable example of biomimicry is Velcro.

"A scientist was walking through the woods with his dog and noticed burrs caught on the dog's fur," she said. "He noticed the little hooks and realized, 'Huh, we can use this to attach things.'"

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For two years, the challenge has centered on issues in the food and agriculture systems, such as waste, packaging, agricultural pest management, food distribution, energy use and more. Fifty judges – biologists, business leaders, venture capitalists, biomimics and agricultural specialists – chose the winning teams.

Courtesy Biomimicry Institute
A rendering of Stillae, a product designed by six students at the Glenforest Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, which won first place in the student category of the Biomimicry Institute’s 2016 Global Design Challenge. Stillae is a device that uses solar-powered spinning blades to capture water in the air before it fully evaporates. The water can then be used to irrigate crops in both developed and developing countries.

“Each team’s design focuses on a different challenge in our broader food system, emphasizing two realities," foundation executive director John Lanier said in a news release. "First, opportunities for innovation are abundant throughout that system. Second, biomimicry is the right design tool to bring these innovations to life."

The first Biomimicry Accelerator program is underway, with teams wrapping up their prototypes and business plans for the award event, the National Bioneers Conference Oct. 22 in San Rafael, California.

"This is our first cohort of finalists to produce working prototypes, which makes them trailblazers,” Biomimicry Institute executive director Beth Rattner said in a news release. “Doing biomimicry is hard, submitting practical and inspired design concepts is far harder, and making them actually work and solve the problem is extraordinary. We are immensely proud of these teams and I believe we will being seeing at least a few of them make it all the way to market."

The next Global Design Challenge opens in October, this time focusing on climate change.

"Food systems are a big part of that, too, but this is thinking even more broadly," Connelly said. "How can we take biomimicry and use it to solve probably the most pressing issue of our time?"

To learn more, go to challenge.biomimicry.org.

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