Nature as inspiration, ally and help

When you want to innovate as a company, nature can be a fantastic source of inspiration. Through the Bionics in SME project, dozens of northern companies have been introduced to that idea.

In addition to fruitful ideas, this also yielded a series of prototypes that are moving toward market-worthy products, such as the current version of the 'underwater kite' or the bio-concrete (see bottom of this article). Dozens of companies have participated in the cross-border Interreg project over the past four years, which was spearheaded in the Netherlands by TCNN, together with the NOM. 'Bionics has gained a foothold as a method of innovation,' says project coordinator Lyanne Ausema, working at TCNN.

But what exactly is bionics - or biomimetics - about? We grab Wikipedia. Bionics, says the online encyclopedia, comes from the Greek word bion, meaning unity of life, and ica, meaning as or like. Combine the two and you get a concept that stands for like life. So like the barbs of the Velcro plant that inspired a Swiss man on a hike in the Alps to invent Velcro - where would we be today without it? And like the beak of the kingfisher that served as an example for the streamlined nose of a high-speed train in Japan.

Actually, the examples - honeycombs, suction cups, adhesives - are there for the taking. Solutions devised by nature itself can not only be translated into products, but they can also be applied to processes and organizations. Because we can also learn something from the self-organization of a starling flock, according to physicist Ylva Poelman, who is closely involved with Bionics in SMEs. Innovation expert Poelman - now known as the bionic woman - is an authority on bionics in the Netherlands. She wrote the book "Nature as Inventor" about it. In it, she explains that nature provides billions of years of innovation for free.

The fact that companies in neighboring Germany were a step ahead with bionics prompted TCNN to put the subject higher on the agenda here as well. 'In Germany, for example, there had already been a Bionics course at the Westfälische Hochschule Bocholt for some time,' says project coordinator Ausema. Companies were able to use the knowledge of the German partners through the Interreg project. The project was also supported from colleges and the State University. 'Nevertheless, we had to work hard to get the subject across,' says Ausema. 'Not every entrepreneur realizes that nature sometimes offers a solution that can benefit his company.'

An initial inventory yielded 137 interested companies. This eventually resulted in sixteen companies developing their ideas into technical calculations or a demonstrator project. Nine companies worked on a prototype in which the operation of principles from nature are reflected. Ausema: "Companies and institutions are actively working with bionics. It is being applied more in all sorts of areas. We were able to make a nice leap.'

Seaqurrent learns from how fish swim

Knowledge of the swimming technique of fish made an important contribution to the construction of the underwater tidal kite that SeaQurrent from Grou will soon test in the Borndiep near Ameland. 'How do fish steer and how do they brake? How do they swerve from an attacker and how do they approach prey? That yielded surprising insights,' says Maurits Alberda of SeaQurrent. SeaQurrent translated the bionics study to the kite itself and to its software controls. Thus the scale model of the underwater kite was given a kind of fish tail, which improves the control and thus the energy yield. The Frisian company conducted research together with bionics expert Ylva Poelman and RUG researcher Eize Stamhuis. SeaQurrent is on the threshold of market introduction of the tidal kite. 'The potential is enormous worldwide,' says Alberda. 'The market is estimated at 600 gigawatts. With also opportunities for energy production at home, in the Wadden Sea and Zeeland.'

Nature as inspiration, ally and help

Making concrete with bacteria

"We apply nature itself," says Dick Specht of Bioclear Earth, which specializes in beneficial application of bacteria. For example, to make a liquid-retaining hard layer in the soil. Very useful when a dense layer is needed under a storage tank. Lab experiments that the city-Groningen company did with support from TCNN's Bionica project yielded a product best described as bio-concrete.

A solid block that in time could even be used as a building material on and in the soil as a replacement for the current (very) environmentally unfriendly cement concrete. Whereas in regular concrete cement takes care of hardening, in the bio-concrete the bacteria of Bioclear Earth do that. 'The interest from the market is enormous, also from the contracting industry,' says Specht. 'There they immediately ask: how strong is it, what does it cost and is it really as sustainable as you say?' But the product has not yet been developed that far. Specht: 'We are now focusing on perfecting the recipe. Then comes scaling it up. It's so promising that I can't even oversee the number of applications.'

Nature as inspiration, ally and help

Cross-Border Bionics

The Interreg project Bionics in SMEs started April 1, 2016 and had a budget of 2.8 million euros. Participants were the three northern provinces, Gelderland and Overijssel and the German states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. The project was completed in March 2020 after a one-year extension.