Biomimicry: Back to nature?

Gemma McGeough and David Stanier of intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers look at the increasing number of designs taking their inspiration from nature.

From the kingfisher-inspired Japanese bullet train to spider silk bulletproof vests, nature is increasingly providing the blueprint for novel materials to enhance the world we live in.

Derived from the Greek words ‘bios’ (life) and ‘mimesis’ (to imitate), biomimicry takes inspiration from solutions found in the natural world, some of which may have been created millions of years ago. By emulating these solutions, engineers have been finding novel and sustainable ways to solve a variety of modern-day challenges.

The idea of biomimicry has been around for many years. Biologist Janine Benyus first coined the term in her 1997 book; Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Since then the popularity of designs inspired by nature has risen significantly, with the use of the term ‘biomimicry’ in granted European and UK patents rising from 43 in 2010 to 241 in 2019.

In a world where millions of pounds are put into research and development (R&D) on an annual basis, biomimicry is a reminder that with 3.8 billion years of trial and error behind it, the earth already holds many valuable secrets.

For example, sharks are widely viewed as powerful, fast-moving predatory animals and many people will recall the sharkskin-inspired suits worn by swimmers during the 2008 Olympics. However, one innovation-led business recently explored another quality of sharkskin. Sharklet Technologies took inspiration from the tiny V-shaped scales of sharks, called dermal denticles, that are arranged in a distinct diamond pattern on the skin of sharks. These denticles discourage microorganisms from growing on the skin, bringing benefits in terms of both cleanliness and hydrodynamic ability.

By mimicking this pattern, Sharklet successfully created an advanced material which is capable of inhibiting bacterial growth through pattern alone. The material offers various applications including wound dressings within the healthcare industry and surfaces for the hulls of boats to reduce algae growth.

Similarly, American company Hedgemon took inspiration from the flexible quills of hedgehogs when creating helmets to protect footballers and other sportspeople from concussion. While these prickly spines are usually associated with protection from predators, they are also excellent at cushioning hedgehogs when falling out of trees. As the hedgehog falls to the ground, it rolls into a ball, surrounding itself with the spines, which then absorb the impact.

Hedgemon identified that the specific arrangement of the layers of quills acts as a shock absorber, which can be applied to sports helmets to protect players against both linear and rotational impacts. These ‘flexible spines’ overlap each other, acting as a cushion to reduce and dissipate impact load. They also spring back into shape, offering multi-hit durability. The result is a solution that is not only applicable to sport helmets but other forms of protective equipment and even packaging.

There is a common misconception that it is more difficult to protect biomimetic designs due to their natural origins. However, all inventions generally take inspiration from somewhere and this is certainly not a barrier to obtaining patent protection. For instance, James Dyson claims to have taken inspiration from industrial dust extractors in sawmills for his patent-protected cyclone vacuum cleaner. As long as an inventive step is involved in adapting or modifying the idea taken from the natural world, it should be possible to secure patent protection.

With much research and development activity involving some element of collaboration, it is vital to consider intellectual property (IP) protection at an early stage. Filing a patent application for any background IP prior to any collaboration is a clear way of setting out what each party is bringing to the table, and ensuring ownership of foreground IP is agreed at the outset can avoid costly disputes further down the line. Securing patent protection early on can also help to inspire investor confidence, which can be beneficial when securing the finance needed to develop the innovation further.

While it is important to have an IP strategy in place, it should be robust and well-considered. By identifying the critical aspects and differentiators of an individual invention, it is often possible to increase the scope of patent protection by considering its potential to applications in different technical fields. Thereby potentially expanding the commercial reach of the IP and providing alternative opportunities to license the patent for others to use or sell.

For both Sharklet Technologies and Hedgemon, patent protection has played an important role in helping them to build a market for their innovations. In the case of Sharklet, for example, the company has secured an exclusive right to monopolise the technology for a wide range of potential applications.

With millions of years of research and development behind it, nature may have the answer to many problems. For companies involved in developing biomimetic innovations, as with all innovations, ignoring the importance of IP could prove to be a costly mistake that makes the difference between commercial success or failure.