From left: Janine Benyus and Jeff Karp discuss biomimicry and bioinspiration.

Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by looking to nature’s time-tested strategies for inspiration. Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute and thought leader in biomimicry, and Beth Rattner, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute visited Jeff Karp, PhD, in the Karp Lab to talk about his work with biomaterials and nanotechnology. The Karp Lab is known for utilizing biomimicry with such projects as surgical staples modeled after porcupine quills. The three talked about his methodology, but beyond that, they talked about human connection with nature and their hopes for society in the future. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

JB: People generally know the qualities of a porcupine quill. Do you ever wonder why nobody saw that for a surgical staple? It seems obvious once it’s done, but that’s what brilliant connections are.

JK: When we started the project several years ago, it came up in a brainstorm with my colleague Rohit Karnik, PhD, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, because we were talking about tissue adhesion. Which creatures in nature have developed mechanisms of tissue adhesion? I typed porcupine quill into an academic publication search engine and there were no publications on the mechanisms of how the quill actually worked. But there were these recipes online about how to remove a quill from a dog, for example.

Janine: So, that was some sort of clue.

Jeff: Yes, but when we looked, no one had ever examined this. We couldn’t even find a paper about the force it would take to remove a quill from tissue. So, we said, “Okay this is interesting—not only can we advance a project, but in the process, we could elucidate some of the mechanisms behind how these quills are really functioning.”

JB: That’s so true. There are many organisms that haven’t been looked at from an engineering standpoint. Oftentimes biology is about why something developed, but the “how did it happen” is generally an obscure paragraph—if it’s there at all. You actually did that work.

JK: We had a problem in hand, and others who had looked at porcupine quills were more looking out of curiosity or for the purposes of removal. Because we had the problem, we were able to bridge the two.

JB: There’s biology-to-design where, say, you’re a porcupine researcher who has thought about biomimicry and all the applications of it. But it’s design-to-biology where we have to look across amoeba through zebra. We look across taxon because our thought is: if you look at plants and animals, you’re going to get a big catalog of solutions, and if you can see the design principles of them, you can see what’s similar about them and what matters. Now it seems like you include bioinspiration as a methodology—it wasn’t a one off. Is your team as invested in digging into the biological literature?

JK: They are. For us, it’s very problem focused. Most of the time, we have a problem that we’re trying to dig into to try and come up with ideas for a viable solution. Often, we think we have something and then we hit a wall—that’s when we turn to nature. That can involve digging into biological literature, or sometimes going to the zoo, or the aquarium, or a brainstorm on various creatures. But there’s an underlying motivation.

JB: So, you’ve got to get unstuck. That makes sense. Some people ask us, “Okay so you start a project, and you ask nature, and then that’s it, right?” No, you’re always solving challenges; at every fork, you have another opportunity.

BR: Janine, what does it mean to have people like Jeff practicing in this field?

JB: This is a case study that says: this methodology works—not just to find creative solutions that haven’t been found before, but to solve real world problems. At some point, people in this field will always look to nature. It’ll just be one of the best practices in innovation, but at this point you’re still getting media attention about the methodology—about how you did it—which is really interesting to me. The world is watching this going, “Is this real?” The answer to the question is: Is it being used? Is it in hospitals? Is it helping people? People want to know that.

BR: Jeff, if you were to flash back to your childhood self, was there an innate interest in nature?

JK: I grew up in the country. I think that might have been a starting place where I gained appreciation for nature. I was in New York City for a talk recently and my hotel was right in Times Square. I was looking out the window just thinking about how it’s such a concrete jungle. That’s where our thinking is as a society, and granted, that’s an extreme, but it’s so far from nature. I feel like biomimicry and bioinspiration are not only important to solve problems—but to get back to nature.

JB: I’m really glad to hear you say that. I agree. I grew up in New Jersey, but I grew up outside. I had to get the dinner bell rung for me after fourteen hours outside. Now I live in Montana. So, I don’t have to look far for big wild now. But you forget, when you’re immersed in it. It’s the first thing you turn to, literally. If I’m having a problem writing something, or thinking about something—I just open the door and I walk outside. I’m constantly doing that. It’s just habit. I’m lucky—it’s a luxury.

JK: Which is funny to say, right? It’s a luxury to experience nature in today’s society.

JB: It really is, it’s the new luxury. Most of us live in cities, and more and more of us will be living in cities. Bringing awareness of the solutions in the natural world to people when it’s not right in front of them is going to be even more of a trip for us to do. Thankfully, there’s much more of a movement to bring nature back into cities—trying to bring back ecosystem services that match the natural ecosystem that would’ve been. As part of that effort, those cities will green up. I also think that even if you have a small park or some sort of life around you, it doesn’t have to be big wild, you can have that direct inspiration. It can’t just be a flower pot of plastic flowers.

BR: Jeff, what do you want for the future—specifically in this field.

JK: People should never lose a connection with nature. And that takes effort. I always like to refer to things as: what’s the activation energy required to do this? It feels like, now, the activation energy it takes to experience nature is going up over time. With all our devices and connectivity with the internet—there’s almost no reason to leave your home or your workplace anymore, you know? Nature is so important for personal fulfillment in life. The challenge for the future is, how do we ensure that the youth have a consistent, continuous appreciation for nature, and can experience it in ways we experienced it as kids.