Mother Nature: A Moneymaker?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if Harman can turn his pretty philosophy into practical products, we could all save big dough.
By Carol J. Clouse
Can you make millions simply by observing nature? It sounds like a pipe dream to many, but then, 65-year-old Jay Harman is an inveterate dreamer. As a kid growing up in Australia, he preferred daydreaming and chasing fish with a spear to going to school — much to the annoyance of his teachers. As a grown-up, the college dropout spends his days trying to preach his particular gospel to skeptical listeners. His belief is a harder sell than most, because Harman argues that businesses should pause, take note of nature — the swirls of a snail’s shell, the wingspan of a bird — and build products inspired by the natural world. Sounds idealistic and impossible to make bank on, right?
Au contraire, says the laid-back Harman, the CEO of a California-based engineering and design company called PAX Scientific. All these observations are the essence behind biomimicry, or the design and production of products and systems that work like something in nature. Call it the ideal business for a Discovery Channel addict, and in the case of PAX that means making energy-efficient fans and tiny gadgets to churn huge amounts of public water to avoid stagnation. It’s all fairly unsexy — efficient industrial equipment like fans, pumps, refrigeration equipment and distillation systems — but together the products improve water quality and lower your energy bill.
People thought we’d been smoking the wrong stuff.
— Jay Harman
With sustainability trending, a greater public awareness of climate change and initial success stories from biomimicry labs, it’s a good time to be in energy. Patents linked to biomimicry increased more than fivefold between 2000 and 2012, according to the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute. That said, the boom in biomimicry has mostly been in the research world: $6 billion of venture capital money, the most ever, went into the industry in 2007, before the crash; in 2013 the number was at $4.3 billion, says the Fermanian report. The private sector, on the other hand, is awaiting proof of profitability. There are supply lines at stake, and what matters to any company is saving money in the short term. Which explains why Harman initially got sideways glances from execs at the water utilities. “People thought we’d been smoking the wrong stuff,” he says. You can see why: Harman and company were claiming they could replace something that requires 100 horsepower with something that uses one-third horsepower. Assuming the skeptics can be won over, if biomimicry explodes, it could be applied to any number of industries, from sunscreens made out of microorganisms that absorb sunlight to 3-D printers that build stuff out of biowaste to medical advances like synthetic blood.
- IBM’s neurosynaptic computer chip that mimics human brain function
- Speedo’s Fastskin line of swimsuits, inspired by the skin of a shark
- For a throwback: Leonardo da Vinci’s conceptual flying machines, based on birds
- Swiss engineer and amateur climber George de Mestral, who invented Velcro, copped the idea from burrs clinging to his dog’s fur
So where’s the money? It’s coming, as the concept moves from research to industry, Harman and others swear. Still, proponents say biomimicry, also known as bioinspiration, needs a breakthrough material product. Lynn Reaser, chief economist at the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, puts it concisely: “Ninety-nine percent of the public has no idea what bioinspiration is.” Optimistic numbers suggest that by 2030, biomimicry could account for $425 billion of U.S. gross domestic product, according to a 2013 study done by Reaser and her colleagues.
We don’t know how PAX is doing — it’s a privately owned company and doesn’t release financials. Chris Calwell, research and policy director of Ecos Consulting, an energy analysis company, says PAX could have a shot if it stays niche. That means the proof will be in the product — and so far, its most successful prospect is a tiny, vortex-shaped device powered by just 300 watts — a couple of light bulbs’ worth of energy — that can mix 10 million gallons of water sitting stagnant in a holding tank. Today, these tiny mixers are reducing the amount of chlorine needed to maintain water quality by as much as 85 percent in more than 700 municipalities around the U.S., Australia and the Middle East, according to the company, using 300 times less energy than a conventional mixer. There’s also PAX’s fan blade design, which also mimics the geometries of a whirlpool. A recent Cisco study involving the design showed 37 percent to 45 percent greater efficiency, PAX says.
What’s all the fuss about fans, anyway?
People commonly compare house fans with air conditioners, but just about anything mechanical has a fan inside for cooling: computers, refrigerators, cars. In fact, a July 2011 article by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers estimated that fans use about 23 percent of the world’s energy.
Harman and his wife, Francesca Bertone, started PAX in 1997 as an intellectual property company. Harman amassed 35 patents and assumed the money would follow. It didn’t. He then approached numerous companies in hopes of selling the intellectual property, but “we just kept getting blank stares,” says Bertone, Harman’s COO. Companies didn’t want to buy ideas; they wanted a product. So PAX began making prototypes, but its ups and downs would continue for years as it moved from designing fans for cars to hair dryers. Next up: negotiations with computer makers and a house fan that uses one-third less energy.
In his younger years, Harman majored in electrical engineering, but he didn’t like it much. He preferred the sea and eventually left college to work on a research vessel operated by Australia’s fish and wildlife department, where he was eventually promoted to captain. In 1982, at the age of 32, he founded one of the country’s largest technology companies, ERG Australia. The company did an IPO in January 1985, and the new board of directors acrimoniously removed him and most of the staff within weeks of the stock market launch. Harman sold his equity; by 1990 ERG was capitalized at $3 billion. He was in his early 40s when he met Bertone in 1993; they married in 1996.
The daydreaming that has consumed Harman since his youth taught him this: Nature doesn’t cotton to straight lines. Mama Gaia prefers curves in her designs, from human fingerprints to hurricanes, and in her movements, from a moth’s flight path toward a flame to the sun’s spiral through the galaxy. Harman first noticed this as a boy swimming and spearfishing off Australia’s coral reefs. He watched the seaweed undulate, moving in a spiral pattern like the whirlpool that forms in a bathtub after pulling the plug. “It’s the path of least resistance in nature,” he says.
As much as it needs a breakthrough product, perhaps the field needs a breakthrough evangelist to get the message across. Could that be Harman? Maybe. He’s a damned good salesman. Now it’s about having something in his pockets to sell.
Photography by Jacek Gancarz for OZY.
- Carol J. Clouse, OZY Author Contact Carol J. Clouse