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10 Nature-Inspired Innovations Compete for 2021 Ray of Hope Prize

Sustainable building materials, textiles, cooling systems and water-filtration technologies are among the top 10 nature-inspired solutions participating in the Biomimicry Institute’s 10-week accelerator program and in the running for the annual $100K prize.

A growing number of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs are learning from nature and reimagining products and business models to help solve some of our most pressing environmental and social challenges. The Biomimicry Institute is proud to announce the top 10 nature-inspired startups selected to participate in the 2021 Ray of Hope Prize® — a transformational program designed to help startup innovators scale their sustainable solutions. The 10-week virtual accelerator culminates in a live pitch for the chance to receive the $100,000 grand prize — awarded by industry and conservation leaders from WWF, Patagonia and Yale, among others. Additional equity-free funding will be available to participating companies.

Created in honor of late Interface founder Ray C. Anderson, the Ray of Hope Prize provides expert training and mentorship in sustainable business practices. Beyond eligibility for the $100,000 prize, all participants are given pitch training, product refinement and storytelling techniques; and gain access to a growing community of biomimicry designers and entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and potential investors. Previous Ray of Hope Prize finalists include breakthrough innovators such as ECOncrete, Werewool, Spotless Materials, Aruga Technologies and Nucleário.

This year, the Institute received 301 applications from 49 countries. Each of the contending startups has the potential to disrupt or eliminate several extractive industries and practices, while revitalizing degraded ecosystems.

The 10 finalists are:

  • Aquammodate (Stora Höga, Sweden) is revolutionizing water purification by mimicking the way diatoms (single-celled algae) form their cell wall out of silica and utilizing aquaporins, proteins that transport pure water across cell membranes throughout nature. Aquammodate’s energy-efficient and selective technology produces high-purity grade water in a single filter pass, desalinates at scale; and removes industrial pollutants and contaminants such as arsenic, microplastics and pharmaceutical residues.

  • Biohm (London, UK) is a bio-based building materials company that makes insulation from mycelium (the “root" structure of mushrooms), and a 100 percent natural sheet material called ORB (organic refuse bio-compound) out of biowaste and a plant-based binder. By embracing circular design and the systemic nutrient cycling found in nature, Biohm’s building materials — which are more affordable and outperform current products on the market — could be one of a growing number of innovations enabling a more sustainable built environment.

  • GROW Oyster Reefs (Charlottesville, VA) — Oysters are critical to maintaining healthy coastlines. They clean the water and create reefs that protect from ocean swells. To help revitalize oyster populations, GROW has created proprietary concrete mixes that are chemically similar to oyster shells, and micro- and macro-designs that attract and retain healthy oyster populations. By working with nature to restore coastal ecosystems, GROW’s products enable long-lasting habitat restoration.

  • Impossible Materials (Fribourg, Switzerland) — Titanium dioxide is the most used colorant in the world, found in the white traffic stripes painted on roads, in sunscreen and toothpaste, and even in powdered donuts. However, titanium mining has an environmental cost, and nanoparticles of titanium dioxide have recently been labeled as a suspected carcinogen. In search of an alternative, researchers studying the bright white Cyphochilus beetle found that the thin layer of scales on its exoskeleton acts as a highly optimized scattering structure, giving the beetle its bright white coloration. Impossible Materials is mimicking this structure with cellulose, creating a safer and better-performing white pigment.

  • Infinite Cooling (Somerville, MA) — 20 percent of all water used globally is in manufacturing sites and power plants, and much of it escapes as high-density vapor from industrial cooling towers. Infinite Cooling has developed an add-on process to capture 100 percent of the cooling tower water vapor, enhancing fog-harvesting strategies deployed by animals such as the Namib desert beetle. By closing the water-cycle loop at industrial facilities, Infinite Cooling helps customers save millions of dollars and millions of gallons of water annually.

  • Mussel Polymers (Bethlehem, PA) has developed a high-performance, non-toxic adhesive known as poly (catechol) styrene (PCS), mimicking the adhesive proteins that mussels use to adhere to surfaces in extreme marine environments. PCS is 300 percent stronger than other underwater adhesives, and bonds to a wide range of materials. Mussel Polymers will be used in a number of industries, but they are bringing their product to market first for coral restoration, solving a critical problem within the conservation ecosystem.

  • New Iridium (Superior, CO) has created a suite of organic chemicals that enable photocatalysis, or light-driven chemistry — eliminating the need for heavy metals or heat as catalysts. Their technology dramatically reduces the energy and time required for a wide variety of chemical reactions, lowering costs and paving the way for green chemistry to become industry standard. With its products already being used by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, New Iridium is working toward developing a platform that mimics photosynthesis by using light energy to convert water and CO2 into chemical energy.

  • Novobiom (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium) is tapping nature’s most powerful recyclers — fungi and microorganisms — for use in brownfields, Superfund sites and other contaminated industrial land. By selecting fungi that target specific contaminants such as oil or heavy metals, they perform mycoremediation on site, without the need for hauling away soil to a central treatment facility. Novobiom has the potential to revitalize millions of contaminated sites around the world by naturally decomposing harmful toxins through this systems-level biomimetic approach.

  • Renaissance Fiber (Wilmington, NC) — Cultivating hemp for textile fiber is an ancient practice; however with the advent of modern agriculture and the invention of synthetic textiles, the processing required for hemp meant it could not compete economically with these alternatives. Renaissance Fiber has developed a degumming method based on natural degradation of plant fibers observed in tidal streams, using far less energy than traditional hemp processing and creating more affordable and higher-quality hemp fiber. Renaissance’s process also sequesters carbon in the effluent, which can be returned to the ocean as a natural carbon sink.

  • Spintex Engineering (Oxford, UK) — Spider silk is often cited as one of the strongest biological materials in the world, and scientists have long been searching for a way to synthesize this silk for use as a textile fiber. Spintex has finally cracked the spider's code and has developed a solution that mimics a spider spinnerets’ ability to spin fiber at room temperature without harsh chemicals, from a liquid gel. Spintex’s process is 1,000 times more energy efficient than synthetic, petroleum fibers, with water as its only by-product.

“This year’s Ray of Hope Prize cohort is collectively taking on global sustainability challenges that represent billions of dollars of business opportunity,” said Jared Yarnall-Shane, Entrepreneurship Director for the Biomimicry Institute. “Our goal is to help them cross the barriers that many science-based entrepreneurs face, providing them the momentum needed to scale operations.”

The Ray of Hope Prize participants are engaged in the 10-week virtual program and will be delivering their pitches to an expert judging panel in early June.

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