Prize Watch: Here's a New Award To Advance Sustainable Design

We’ve seen prizes for lunar missions, fighting antibiotics resistance, and even a better condom. The latest, a partnership between a sustainability nonprofit and a foundation, will reward biomimicry, which is design inspired by nature. 

Everybody loves a good competition. Google funds a couple, there’s also Wendy Schmidt's Ocean Health XPrize, and the Longitude Prize in the UK. They can serve as vehicles to elevate certain issues or fields, or a way to open up a sticky problem to a wider array of brains. In the case of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, the goal is to find bright new ideas inspired by natural systems, with an emphasis on actually getting them to market.


The inaugural challenge is the result of a partnership between the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit that’s got a hot hand lately, and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, which has been flexing its muscle this year.

The Biomimicry Institute is a nonprofit (with a sister for-profit consulting firm) that promotes design that is inspired by nature. Biomimicry means using natural systems as models for sustainable design. The institute has actually run a competition for a few years now, but it was more about getting college students interested in biomimicry.

The new incarnation of the challenge is funded with $1.5 million over four years, committed by the Anderson Foundation. The funding supports a cash prize of $100,000, but also resources to turn winner's prototypes into marketable solutions. For the first time, the competition will also be open to professionals as well as students. The subject of the competition will rotate every two years, with the first topic on using biomimicry to improve food systems. 

The competition is an interesting amalgam, with the problem-solving spirit of an XPrize, a futuristic design focus similar to the Dyson Award, but a prototype-to-market element more like what you'd see in a startup competition than a philanthropic award. The partnership describes the challenge as “crowdsourcing nature-inspired innovation.”

The Biomimicry Institute’s unique approach has earned a good deal of attention in its less than 10 years. Its current roster of funders includes the Kendeda Fund, Argosy Foundation, and Burt’s Bees Greater Good Foundation. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation recently announced the group as one of its 2015 grantees. The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Bullitt Foundation are also past supporters. 


The Ray C. Anderson Foundation is one to watch as well. Anderson, who passed away in 2011, had developed a reputation as a corporate CEO with an environmental conscience. He's been featured in a few documentaries—including a prominent role in 2003's The Corporation—for his efforts to make his Interface carpet company more sustainable, and for championing industry's responsibility to protect the environment. 

Aside from the biomimicry grant, the foundation this year gave $5 million to Georgia Tech for its sustainable business program. It's also funding work to turn a 16-mile stretch of highway in Georgia into a “Mission Zero Corridor,” a sustainable highway that would generate renewable energy, sequester carbon, and protect wildlife.

This business-savvy foundation has been backing the Biomimicry Institute for a while now, but a boost in funding could turn its design challenge into a more prominent force in entrepreneurial environmentalism.