Floating islands, inspired by nature

It would not be accurate to call Floating Island International, the business led by Bruce and Anne Kania, a mom-and-pop operation–for one thing, although they are married, Bruce and Anne don’t have children–but that description gives you a sense of the scale of their startup. With fewer than a dozen employees, the Kanias are tucked away in the small town of Shepherd, Montana (population: 208) and the firm’s annual revenues are less than $1 million.

But Floating Island International already lives up to its name: Its man-made islands can be found in New Zealand, China, South Africa and Canada as well as in the U.S. Its customers include U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, American Electric Power and Disney World, which suggests that they may be onto something. And the Kanias’ ambitions seem to know no bounds.

“I’m pretty sure we are going to be one of the most successful businesses of all time,” says Bruce.

Bruce, who is 57, is an inventor and entrepreneur who worked in prosthetics, textiles and sporting goods (he invented a broadhead arrow). Then, about a decade ago, he came up with the idea of turning plastic trash into man-made floating islands that can clean polluted water, spur the growth of fish, provide species habitat and sequester carbon.

Not to mention create beachfront property.

We’re learning how to grow real estate,” he says. [click to continue…]

What business can learn from Sea-Monkeys

If you were one of those kids who looked forward to science class, you probably remember Sea-Monkeys.

I wasn’t into science but, as I recall, you could order Sea Monkeys from the back page of a comic book. According to Wikipedia, Sea Monkeys are the brand name for a

variant of brine shrimp… a species which enters cyptobiosis,  a natural state of suspended animation, allowing their cysts (dormant saclike embryos) to be distributed and sold as a dry powder. When the “eggs” are poured into saltwater, the Sea-Monkeys start to come out of their cysts.

Now, it turns out,  the coating that kept the brine shrimp alive can do more than entertain science geeks on a Saturday night. Its properties have inspired a startup company called Biomatrica, which makes a “room temperature stabilization technology” used to preserve vaccines and other medicines that would otherwise have to be refrigerated. Don’t ask me to explain how the science works — yes, I should have paid more attention back in high school — but I can tell you that this product is potentially a very big deal. Think of how it can help overcome the challenges of delivering medicine to the many places in the world without an electricity grid, where keeping them reliably cold is all but impossible.

Janine Benyus

The story of Biomatrica, one of a number of companies using a practice known as biomimicry to drive innovation and become more sustainable, was recounted yesterday by Janine Benyus, the biologist who dreamed up the idea of  biomimicry. She now leads a consulting firm and a nonprofit to spread its ideas; their website defines biomimicry as” an emerging discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.”

Janine spoke on a panel today at the first GreenBiz Innovation Forum, a two-day event intended to help business rethink their products, processes and business models to make them more sustainable. She was joined by John Warner, the president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

Benyus and Warner are among the most original, creative and inspiring thinkers you’ll find anywhere in the sustainability world. They made a bit of news during the GreenBiz event by disclosing that they will be working together in the future, at least for certain clients. They’re both big thinkers: This is a crude way of putting it, but Benyus and Warner are trying to transform industry to become more like nature and less like, well, industry — by using more benign materials and processes, by becoming more efficient and generating less waste.

John Warner

Green chemistry, Warner explained, “is a science of active pollution prevention.” His institute works in a variety of industries–solar energy, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, personal care and cosmetics–to reduce or eliminate substances that are hazardous to human health or to the planet. His institute says:

Green Chemistry presents industries with incredible opportunity for growth and competitive advantage. This is because there is currently a significant shortage of green technologies: we estimate that only 10% of current technologies are environmentally benign; another 35% could be made benign relatively easily. The remaining 65% have yet to be invented!

The benefits to consumers and to the environment of green chemistry are obvious. Business gains because if hazardous materials are eliminated from products or manufacturing processes, the cost of disposing and handling those materials should disappear as well. “If you render the molecules safe in the first place, you don’t have the expense of exposure controls.” Warner said most major chemical firms are at least dabbling in green chemistry, and some are taking it very seriously. [click to continue…]

GE, biomimicry, wind and nanopants

Earlier this week, I visited GE’s Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, near Albany. Cool place, the home base for about 1,900 scientists, and one of four GE research centers around the world. The others are in Bangalore, Munich and Shanghai.

I wrote a column for FORTUNE’s website about GE’s venture investments (GE brings good things to startups), about which I’ll blog a little more next week. But for today, a look at how GE’s research into how nanotechnology, which is the study of matter on a molecular and atomic scale, could help drive the wind turbine industry. This technology is inspired, in part, by lotus plants leaves that are able to repel water–an example of biomimicry, which studies nature’s best ideas and using them to solve human problems. GE’s goal, as the video below shows, is to come up with nano-coatings on wind blades or aircraft engines that repel water. This technology is inspired, in part, by lotus plants leaves that are able to repel water–an example of biomimicry, which studies nature’s best ideas and using them to solve human problems.

Materials that do a great job of repelling water are called superhydrophobic. An example would be nanopants–spill a soda on them, and the liquid would roll right off. Check out this video to see how it works–the water droplets below really, really don’t like the nanocoating. My only critique: GE should have set this video to music.

You can read a blogpost from GE engineer Joseph Vinciquerra about superhydrophobic technology, “Creating anti-icing surfaces,” on GE’s global research blog.

Buildings inspired by nature

One of the most fascinating ideas in the world of sustainability is biomimicry—the notion that we can design products, services, systems and processes to look more like nature. In nature, nothing is wasted. Everything is sustainable. And efficiency has been driven by 3.8 billion years of evolution.

Recently, HOK, one of the world’s big architectural firms, formed an alliance with the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm led by Janine Benyus, the guru of biomimicry. They’ll work together to explore the question of how nature can help us better design buildings, neighborhoods and cities. Their work is the topic of today’s Sustainability column.

Here’s how the column begins:

What if the outside of a building worked more like a leaf?

About 30 years ago, a German botanist named Wilhelm Barthlott noticed the bumpy structure of the leaves of the lotus plant, which clean themselves by forcing rainwater to bead, collect dirt and wash it away. He patented what is now called the “Lotus-Effect” and licensed it to manufacturers of self-cleaning paints, glass and roofing tiles, which are used in thousands of buildings in Europe.

This is an example of biomimicry, an emerging discipline that draws inspiration from nature to design new products, systems, and buildings – even cities and towns.

The term was coined by science writer Janine Benyus in a 1997 book, Biomimicry, and lately it has become a hot topic in corporate America. General Electric, General Mills and Kraft Foods have all turned to the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm led by Benyus, for help as they design new products. Now she has struck a deal with HOK, one of the world’s biggest and most influential architectural firms, to see what biomimicry can do for buildings.

Janine Benyus spoke about biomimicry last April at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm: Green conference about business and the environment, and she was a big hit. I’m hoping to organize a panel for the 2009 edition of Brainstorm: Green about products inspired by nature, like the Speedo bathing suit influenced by shark skin and worn by Michael Phelps, below.

You can read the rest of the column here.