Ecocentricity Blog: Beetles, Mussels and Diatoms, Oh My!

By: John A. Lanier
Jun 23, 2021 4:15 PM ET
Campaign: Ecocentricity Blog

Ecocentricity Blog: Beetles, Mussels and Diatoms, Oh My!

For folks who follow along with our press releases and social media, you probably already heard the news. At the Circularity21 conference last week, we awarded the sixth annual Ray of Hope prize to the best biomimetic startup business. Many congratulations to Spintex and Aquammodate, our winner and runner-up respectively. For that matter, congratulations to all of the teams – as a judge for the award, I was blown away by the quality of their business models and their pitches.

You can read about all ten of the finalist teams who pitched here. In past years, I’ve written about the process of being a judge, and I’ve also shone a spotlight on a few of the teams who have competed. I don’t want to do that this year. They all deserve a spotlight for sure, but I want to spend some time reflecting on the muse who has inspired each and every business that competed for the prize – nature.

What I find remarkable is the breadth of life that inspired this year’s startups. One team looked at the Cyphochilus beetle to determine why its shell is white, which allowed them to fabricate a cellulose-based white pigment that can displace other harmful white pigments like titanium dioxide. Another team was inspired by a beetle, but for wholly different reasons. They looked to the Stenocara gracilipes beetle, which lives in the Namib Desert and survives by capturing tiny water droplets from the air. This technique inspired a technology that can capture the water from steam plumes at industrial facilities and power plants.

Now let’s hop over to the kingdom of the fungi. Two teams were inspired by many different species of fungus. One has figured out how to harness fungi to decompose various waste streams and then harvest the mycelium to fabricate building products like insulation. The other uses fungal strains to break down toxins in soil, offering a better soil remediation technology for contaminated sites like brownfields and Superfund sites.

Two teams dive into aquatic ecosystems for their inspiration. One lifts up the humble oyster and its ability to filter water and regenerate ocean habitats, fabricating substrates on which oysters can more easily attach and grow. The other has cracked the code on mussels and their unparalleled adhesive that lets them bind to surfaces underwater. Mimicking that has given them an adhesive that outperforms industry leading technologies in wet environments.

Another two teams are trying to disrupt the textile industry with innovations in fibers. One has developed a technique to degum hemp fiber that is based on the way estuary ecosystems rely upon tidal flows. The other perfectly imitates the spider’s ability to extract a solid fiber from a liquid, protein-rich gel in its abdomen. The result is a fiber that can replace silk, a luxury fiber that has an unfortunately negative environmental impact.

Our final two teams zoom in to microscopic scales for inspiration. One looks at diatoms, single-celled algae that make a huge difference for our planet as they generate more than 20% of the oxygen produced on Earth. This team studied the structural form of diatoms and how they can enhance our current best-in-class water filtration technologies. Last we have a team that takes inspiration from chlorophyll molecules and their ability to absorb light to power biochemistry (what we call photosynthesis). This team has developed a photocatalyst that can allow our modern chemistry to be powered by light instead of by heat and heavy metals.

Beetles, mushrooms, estuaries, oysters, mussels, spiders, diatoms and chlorophyll – that’s about as diverse as it gets. And it’s just a scratch on the surface of nature’s library of solutions. Nature really is the best teacher, and the teams that pitched for our Ray of Hope Prize know it. Best wishes to all of them as they take the next steps in their entrepreneurial journeys!

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Valerie Bennett
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