By the middle of the 20th century, Zippers were the ultimate choice as fasteners. But the market was to undergo a disruption.
The seeds of change were sown by the Burdock plant. Burdock (and few other plants) produce seeds that are full of tiny hooks. These hooks get stuck on the fur or socks of passing humans and animals. A great example of pollination helping the plant disperse its seeds and grow further. But who knew, they would one day become a part of human history leading to an innovation that will change the world forever.
It all began with a walk in the mountain.
In 1941, a Swiss engineer by the name of George De Mestral was on a hunting trip in the Swiss alps accompanied by his pet dog Milka. He noticed that seeds from burdock plants had hot suck on his socks, pants, and jackets.
To his surprise, he observed that it has also got attached to his dog’s fur. Well, it was neither the first time that happened nor he was the first person who experienced it. Earlier people would brush them off in irritation and frustration.
But De Mestral was different. Bitten by curiosity bug, he decided to uncover the secret as to why that happened. It was his love of science that he collected the burrs and put them under the microscope.
On close examination, he observed that the plant has tiny hooks which allowed them to get stuck onto clothes and other surfaces.
He got intrigued by what he saw and being a firm believer of the fact that mother nature, never does anything without a purpose, decided to go deep and maybe thought what if he could invent a new type of fastener which could be used for various commercial applications.
Right from the start, he knew he would have to create 2 layers, one with hooks imitating the burrs of the tree and the other with a loop mimicking the surface on which it will attach.
Well, easier said than done. Knowing that fabric would be the right medium, he set out on a tour to various fabric manufacturers all over Europe. All of them were quite skeptical of the idea. For them, the loop seemed easy part but the hook appeared almost impossible. Finally, he found a manufacturer in Lyon France willing to experiment for him.
The second challenge was to find a fabric that could create such a strong bonding. He began experimenting with cotton. The weaver created a prototype with 2 cotton stripes one containing thousands of hooks and the other made up of thousands of loops. On application, he found that cotton was too soft and would not be able to withstand the repeated opening and closures. As usual with all experimentations, his search continued for years trying various materials for his product, but again as always, he failed. Being an avid learner, he soon realized that only synthetic will work best, so decided to try nylon.
After 8 long years of continuous trial and error, he finally created what we know today as “Velcro.” The word Velcro is a combination of 2 words velvet and crochet. He applied for a patent in 1955 and with an initial loan capital of 1,50,000 $ formed a company for manufacturing the product.
Today it is very hard to imagine our life without Velcro, a fastener that is used almost everywhere be it healthcare, footwear, sports equipment, sneakers, jackets, wallets, watchbands, toys, backpacks, airlines, and much more.
Well, it was even used in the most unlikely and unusual place, the human heart. Yes, Velcro was used to hold together a human heart during the first-ever artificial heart surgery. Even Nasa uses it starting as early as the 60’, when it was used by Apollo astronauts to hold food packets, equipment and prevent them from floating around.
Innovative ideas applied to everyday problems can have just as much business impact as headline-grabbing inventions.
The invention of Velcro is one of the most recognizable and commercially successful examples of accidental discovery. Human history is filled with life-changing products that were accidental inventions and discoveries.
Many accidental discoveries have been path-breaking inventions. There is a very powerful lesson to be learned from these so-called happy accidents. The lesson here is that innovation can come from the least unexpected places, and the key is to spread out your observation and effort to cover the entire area.
The path to innovation tends to follow a scenic route, one that moves through unforeseen twists and turns to arrive at new surprising destinations. Innovation is about inspiration, which can come from anywhere or anyone at any time coming from continuous observation and listening.
The silver lining is whether you are working on a new idea in your business or life or experimenting with materials and designs, you never know when a mistake, failure, accident, or mishap can transform into your “Eureka” moment.
De Mestral looked at Mother Nature for ideas.
This phenomenon is known as, “Biomimicry.”
It is the design, production, transportation, and distribution of products, services, structures, and systems that are inspired and then modeled after natural organisms and biological processes. Biomimicry and biomimetics is the science that studies nature and biology as a source of inspiration for the design and production of innovative products and solutions to solve human problems and answer some unsolved questions.
Mother nature is a huge open classroom offering many ideas and insights to anyone who takes the time to stop, observe, reflect and discover. Nature only if we know how to look at it is a great source of education, research, inspiration, and motivation.
“I think the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century,” said Steve Jobs, “will be the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning, just like the digital one.”
Considering the effects of climate change and the growing population now is the time for businesses and organizations of all kinds to embrace nature as a source of motivation to design and engineer their products and services.
Who knows your next business idea or digital revolution may come from nature?
Use nature as your muse. Long live biomimicry.
Happy Observation and Innovation!