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The University of Akron offers training in biomimicry to PhDs

Legal News Reporter

Published: March 19, 2015

Some people look to the outdoors for exercise and/or relaxation, but the earth’s natural surroundings can also inspire innovative ideas.

Between the late ‘40s and mid-‘50s, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral invented Velcro based on his initial observation that his socks, jacket and his dog’s fur had cockleburs all over them after a walk in the woods. When he studied the burs, de Mestral discovered hundreds of hooks and noticed how easily they attached to fibers.

His methodology is what’s known as biomimicry, an emerging field that seeks to create sustainable solutions, products and policies that solve human challenges by mimicking nature’s patterns and strategies.

In 2012, The University of Akron launched the Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center (BRIC) Initiative, introducing five-year fellowships to train integrated bioscience doctoral students in biomimicry.

“I believe we are one of the first schools to train PhDs in biomimicry in the U.S.,” said Dr. Peter Niewiarowski, professor of biology and integrated bioscience and director of biomimicry fellowships at The University of Akron.

“Biomimicry is an emerging field based on an old paradigm,” said Niewiarowski. “It has never been a field onto its own but over the last 15 years it has become a prominent area to study due to new technology.

“Biomimicry is a potent new source of innovation that has the potential to impact multiple disciplines, including the legal field, which have critical contributions to make in corporate and academic innovation and the resulting patents and intellectual property.”

Biomimicry was the topic at the Akron Roundtable luncheon, which took place at the university on Feb. 19.

Tom Tyrrell, chief executive officer, chairman and founder of Great Lakes Biomimicry (GLBio), a major partner with BRIC, was among the featured speakers at the roundtable.

 ”Biomimicry cuts across all boundaries,” said Tyrrell. “Great Lakes Biomimicry got started in the fall of 2010 and we are the only ones developing educationally driven economic development in the world.”

 GLBio has assembled numerous corporate sponsors like Cleveland-based Parker Hannifin, Akron-based GOJO Industries, Cleveland-based The Sherwin-Williams Company and Elyria-based Ross Environmental Services for the new integrated science Ph.D. training in the emerging field of biomimicry, raising $400,000 to support the first four fellows. As of December 2014, the organization had secured commitments of $1.8 million for a total of 15 fellows, some who are being recruited right now.

Niewiarowski said the network of relationships launched by GLBio has resulted in “a kind of biomimicry research and education ecosystem in the region,” so that the school’s fellows are connected to “the innovation landscape” of northeast Ohio.

Emily Kennedy is among the initial group of fellows. Prior to her work at The University of Akron, she took a class in biomimicry at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia as part of a study abroad program organized by Colgate University in New York.

“I fell in love with biomimicry,” said Kennedy who received her undergraduate degree from Colgate University in international relations, with a minor in environmental studies.  “I could see its potential in Australia’s rain forest and reef species.

 “I was hoping to continue to study biomimicry, but at the time of my graduation I could not find a graduate program. I went into environmental consulting but I kept searching for programs and then I heard about the one at Akron.

 “My goal is to use my knowledge to do project-based work for different companies or smaller startups, showing them how to use biomimicry as an innovation tool.”

Niewiarowski said the initiative at The University of Akron is unique because it trains PhDs in biomimicry by combining design, engineering, biology and business with on-the-job experience working inside the research and development departments of one of the sponsor companies or a school.

In Kennedy’s case, she spends two days a week at GOJO Industries.

 “I have been working on a project that is exploring how to make soap and sanitizer dispensers more energy efficient,” said Kennedy, who began her fellowship in August 2012. “We have been studying how nature moves fluids. For example, we looked at how squids move through water and how a cobra spits its venom. We now have five patent applications pending on ideas that are projecting 50 percent in energy savings.”

“Innovation is at the core of what we do here at GOJO Industries,” said GOJO Sustainability and Life Cycle Assessment Specialist, Tom Marting. “Our research and development department often looks outside the company to find ways to innovate. Biomimicry is very attractive to us because it is a proven way to create sustainable innovations.

 “Emily is helping us to find a new design for our soap and sanitizer dispensers,” said Marting. “By understanding the natural model of fluid movement, the team has been able to design several prototypes.”

In addition to corporate sponsors, GLBio has identified four regional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Beta Schools that are receiving training in biomimicry, including the National Inventors Hall of Fame middle and high schools.

“The key is to begin teaching children biomimicry from an early age so that it becomes a part of the way they think,” said Tyrrell. “That way by the time they reach high school they will have solid knowledge in the use of this process.”

“One of the Ph.D. fellows from The University of Akron is working with our eighth grade students at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School to help us create middle school curriculum that will support the concept of biomimicry design,” said Traci Buckner, director of specialty programs at Akron Public Schools and the founding instructional leader at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School…Center for STEM Learning.

“Our high school students collaborated with The University of Akron's Biomedical Engineering Department. The high school students were tasked with looking to nature to determine how to redesign or newly design a better prosthetic leg,” said Buckner. “They examined the feet of several animals and have presented their ideas.”

Once the curriculum is created, she said the goal is to share it with other Akron public schools.

“The STEM schools focus on graduating creative and inventive thinkers but we want all of our students in Akron Public Schools and across the region to be equipped with 21st century skills,” said Buckner. “Those graduating from high school are not always fully prepared for the outside world. It’s one thing to learn the content but it’s also necessary to learn how to apply it, how to collaborate with others and, at times, how to be self-directed.”

There are currently six Ph.D. candidates in The University of Akron program. Educators are in the final stages of accepting applicants for nine new fellow positions that will start in the fall of this year and be sponsored by The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, The Lubrizol Corporation, Bendix Commercial Vehicles Systems, Nottingham Spirk, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, TIES (Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM), Avon Lake Regional Water, The Cleveland Foundation and others.

Niewiarowski said research leading to new products and services could play a key role in regional economic development, attracting talent and investment in northeast Ohio.

GLBio is the bridge between the academic and business partners, he said.

“We’re going to grow the local economy around something that’s not only a source of innovation, but is also sustainable innovation,” said Niewiarowski.