Managing Director Nicole Miller Talks About Biomimicry 3.8
Nicole Miller is Managing Director of Biomimicry 3.8, the world’s leading bio-inspired consultancy. The company was founded by women and is managed by women. Nicole took time out of her busy schedule to talk about biomimicry, her firm, and the importance of biomimicry as a source of inspiration for product designers and entrepreneurs. Biomimicry is especially interesting as an approach to sustainable product design.
Nicole’s background is in sourcing and Corporate Social Responsibility. She built the global supply chain for Overstock.com’s private-label products, and through that, became responsible for the company’s social and environmental compliance for sourcing, ranging from handbags to sofas. The manufacturing process (for any product or company) has a significant range of negative externalities, including waste, pollution, and social implications. This exposure spurred Nicole to find ways to go beyond simply achieving Western standards of environmental and social compliance. “I realized that, no matter if I was at Overstock or Amazon, Target or Walmart, it really didn’t matter because the negative impact was so significant. That’s when I started to think that we can’t keep looking at this from a tailpipe-solution standpoint. We need to get in front of the innovation process so that we’re not trying to just reduce problems and impacts on the backend.”
For Nicole, this was a big shift in thinking about what sustainability means. Still working for Overstock, she moved back to Montana, where her family has lived for five generations. Biomimicry 3.8 is also based in Montana. Fascinated by the company’s work, she connected with them. The company was growing and needed more people with the skill set she possessed – Nicole is a builder and developer of businesses and systems. Biomimicry 3.8 was founded by incredibly brilliant biologists; its staff included engineers, chemists and architects, but it didn’t have a strong business and operations team. Nicole brought that to the table and joined the company. Here’s our interview:
Nicole, let’s start with a basic question – what is biomimicry?
Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. It’s the conscious emulation of nature’s genius. So, it’s about consciously going out and looking at nature, finding a kind of phenomena that happens and emulating that in design.
It’s not just something new, hip and trendy – it’s deeply rooted in science and it’s something designers have been doing for quite some time. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci practiced biomimicry by studying how birds fly in hopes of finding a way for humans to take flight. It wasn’t until 1997 when Janine Benyus (Biomimicry 3.8’s Co-Founder) wrote the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, that the practice got a formal name. Biomimicry is a science based approached to design and innovation that looks to nature, using 3.8 billions years of R&D in nature as our lab.
And what does your firm do?
Biomimicry 3.8 delivers biological intelligence to help companies drive innovation that is inherently sustainable. We also use our expertise to train people to use biomimicry. That’s essentially what we do-from a 60,000-foot view.
We focus on three primary areas – consulting, training and inspiration. For consulting, we work directly with companies to help them innovate, working on anything from sunblock to packaging to buildings – and even on entire cities. For professional training, we have one week immersion programs offered throughout the world. For those wanting to dig deeper, we offer a two-year master’s degree program through our partnership with Arizona State University. Finally, we support thought leadership around the topic of biomimicry. Our founders and team are always on the forefront of the latest biomimicry innovations. The company (formerly the Biomimicry Guild), was founded by Janine Benyus (right), a biologist and author, and Dr. Dayna Baumeister (left), also a biologist. These women are incredible thought leaders in the space of biomimicry and are regularly sought after to speak at companies, conferences and government events to help inspire and inform next level thinking that drives innovative and sustainable solutions.
Janine Benyus first coined the term “biomimicry” in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Not long after Janine’s book was published, people started calling her and saying, “it’s really phenomenal what you’re proposing here – that innovation can come from nature. Can you and your team come and help our company figure out how to innovate in this way?” Shortly after Janine wrote the book, Dayna connected with Janine and, together, they developed the first biomimicry consultancy.
They soon recognized that it’s not enough to help companies on one project, then send them on their way. If they could actually teach people how to practice biomimicry, they could expand their impact on a much larger scale. So, they developed professional training in biomimicry. So, now we provide one-week immersion programs throughout the year and have an accredited online master’s degree program at Arizona State University. We also lead trainings with companies – we’ll go into a company and focus on their particular challenges, then, immerse their team in the practice. We give them the tools and resources to think about their challenges in entirely different ways.
You’ve also got a sister nonprofit organization, right?
Yes, the Biomimicry Institute is our sister non-profit organization that Janine also founded. Its work is steeped in driving the proficiency of biomimicry throughout the world. The focus is on K-12 education, AskNature.org – an open innovation platform – and entrepreneurs, which is largely supported by the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, an annual competition that gives teams of students and professionals the opportunity to solve critical global issues through innovating nature-inspired solutions.
I love the concept of biomimicry, as you know! Can you give an example of how it’s been applied?
One example I like to share is PureBond technology. This is a product that was created by a scientist – a chemist and wood engineer, Dr. Kaichang Li, who was studying blue mussels. They live in the intertidal zone, where they have to adhere to rocks or other rough surfaces under the pounding of ocean waves. Li was fascinated by this concept, and began to study it on a molecular level to find out how the mussels adhere under water. Through his research, he developed a soy-based wood glue that is non-toxic and that could replace glue that has the possible carcinogen formaldehyde as an ingredient. He patented the product and the company, Columbia Forest Products, began using Li’s glue in the manufacturing process at all of their seven plywood plants. In doing so, it has replaced the use of an estimated 47 million pounds of toxic resins and reduced emissions of air pollutants at each of its plants by 50-90%. So that’s an example of one approach, of someone who went out in nature, identified some properties, and then took that knowledge and applied it to develop a non-toxic product innovation.
Can you give an example of your work with a client company?
One of my favorite companies we’ve worked with is Natura, a cosmetics company based in Brazil. Their corporate culture is one that values taking care of people and the environment in a very holistic way. On one project, they wanted to look at helping customers get the last drop of a product from every bottle. It was an opportunity to look at potential ways to reinvent their packaging to reduce waste and cut their carbon footprint. We helped them look at the broader issue of managing and containing liquids. Then, we went to the biological literature – we looked at a sunflower stem, a cactus, a sea urchin… we looked at 60 different organisms. There were also some secondary functions that we looked at, like efficiency optimization, ease-of-use – multiple variables. By doing that, we were able to come up with a subset of strategies that met their performance criteria. From these, they came up with about 25 different design ideas for new packaging that met their needs, reducing both the amount of material used to make the packaging and the space needed to store and ship the product. Tatil, the design company that helped create the Natura packaging designs, was awarded the 2013 IF Packaging Design Award.
How does this relate to environmental sustainability?
If you were looking at it from a sustainability standpoint – nature has been innovating for 3.8 billion years and what we see today is the 1% of organisms and systems that have been successful. All else has failed. Nature has a way of creating inherently sustainable designs because it has to succeed. Quite simply, if you don’t design or act in a way that allows for your species or your habitat to exist in the future, you’re not successful and will go extinct.
Your immersion programs sound interesting – can you tell me more about them?
Our immersion programs are a week long. They’re designed to get you out of traditional environments, so they’re held in amazing places around the world. This year they took place in the Redwood Forest in California and the Rocky Mountains of Montana. We still have two upcoming 2017 workshops, one outside of Atlanta in October and the other in Costa Rica in December. The idea is to place participants in an environment where you can learn from different ecosystems and organisms, see how they function in interstitial zones and how they’re able to exist, for example, when there is water and when there isn’t water.
The week is all about getting outside and going on field trips to many different ecosystems, encouraging participants to observe what is happening around them. Throughout the week, they’re learning by working in groups to solve particular challenges. The week culminates in creating their own project around a particular challenge they’re working on. Participants come from all different types of companies and many different backgrounds. They are there with a biologist, a naturalist, and other interesting people also working on fascinating challenges. Our immersions help participants to see, experience, and learn in ways they never have before. I mean, when we go for a walk through the woods, we take for granted that there’s an entire ecosystem that we’ve never thought about. Participants are exposed to expert organism “mentors” in these systems. For example, an entomologist will teach you about ant colonies and how they communicate. It’s an incredible learning environment that leaves you with a new mindset, open to new possibilities– and also quite exhausted at the end of 5 days!
So biomimicry is a great practice that can inform sustainable product innovation. How can biomimicry training be useful for entrepreneurs?
There are 30 million species that we know of right now here on Earth. There’s an abundance of knowledge out there. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, you’re constantly looking at different ideas and trying to find opportunities. So, there’s an incredible wealth of knowledge at our fingertips in nature – why not use it?
Can you give an example of an entrepreneur designing products with biomimicry?
A great example of an entrepreneur working with biomimicry is Jay Harman of Pax Scientific. He and his team focus on optimizing natural flows of fluids, first to nautical design, and now to devices including fans, mixers, pumps, turbines, and propellers.
Nicole, thanks for all of this great information about Biomimicry 3.8. Where can entrepreneurs and companies learn more about your programs, services and resources?
Here are links to Biomimicry 3.8 and Biomimicry Institute’s websites for more information: