A business case for taking advantage of nature’s genius

The new Centre for BioInspiration at the San Diego Zoo plans to take biodiversity and biomimicry to an entirely new level. As Paula S. Brock and Larry G. Stambaugh explain, the idea is to create a hub of scientific knowledge and financial capital where early-stage ideas can be transformed into actual products and services within the next three to four years.

Interview: Steffen Klatt, Zurich


Why is the San Diego Zoo creating the Centre for BioInspiration?

Paula S. Brock: It can help us fulfill our mission. As I mentioned, we’re in the business of saving species, but what ultimate value can we serve if we can’t reintroduce a species? So by assisting in the development of products and processes that are restorative to habitats, we can enhance by biodiversity. But the other thing is that we are the living library, the collection and inspiration with our animals and plants and our one hundred years of husbandry around animals. So it’s a natural progression.

So to use your image, you are now looking for new readers of your library? Until now you had all of these visitors and now you are looking for businesses?

Brock: There are two things: Yes, we are looking for businesses, but we are also looking for when the people visit, that they don’t just look at the animals from a passive perspective. We want them to start to recognize that these animals and plants hold secrets that might actually be the key to our survival or make our lives better. So it’s a combination.

So they have lessons to teach and are not simply a dull species or dull animals running around for our pleasure.

Brock: Exactly. We can learn from them.

Who should be attracted to the Centre for BioInspiration?

Larry G. Stambaugh: It will be all disciplines because of the breadth, the knowledge of nature. It can be engineering, life science, materials or social organizing. There are no limits to the areas. We expect to bring in biologists, architects, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, agronomists, and all disciplines to look at this vast knowledge and help us select those pieces of knowledge to make a better world.

Will the Centre be located on a campus in San Diego?

Brock: Yes, it’s flexible. What we hope to do is create the hub in San Diego and provide a template. The template can be replicating in Zurich or in Johannesburg.

So you don’t regard other zoos as your competitors?

Brock: No. Collaborators.

Stambaugh: There are millions of ideas, and we all need to be working on this. It’s not scarcity; it’s more all of us finding ways to collaborate to take advantage of nature’s genius.

What kind of services will you provide so that companies can flourish there?

Stambaugh: The services will include bringing capital, bringing entrepreneurial management, and helping with the intellectual property and the process of developing the early-stage models and working proof of principle, so that translating science or knowledge into a product or service at an early stage can then be transferred to a company or an organization outside, which can then take it on into the world.

Brock: Market and research, too.

Where could you get financing for such companies?

Stambaugh: The sources for the early incubator will be private, philanthropic, some corporate, grants, foundations and organizations, and governments included for specific projects. We’ll develop that over the next three or four years to see what else might be available. And then a self-sustaining process through the out-licensing to keep that whole incubator alive.

How will you deal with intellectual property, which is much more difficult than nature?

Stambaugh: It’s just like any other young, early-stage company. The intellectual property needs to protect the product enough that capital can afford to make an investment and get it back in a long enough period to be able to put in whatever it takes to get the product developed and attract management to take on that process. But it’s really not unique.

Can I protect a lesson that nature teaches me?

Stambaugh: No, your point is right. If it’s already in the public, it’s not protectable. But adaptations can then be synthesized or the analogies can be patented for a specific use. There will be some challenges in IP.

Brock: We’re not creating IP for nature. We’re creating IP for the analogies that were drawn from nature. It’s not like we’re trying to say “nature is ours now”. That’s impossible. It’s the human decisions and choices and analysis that are IP.

When will you have your first product and services on the market?

Stambaugh: In the next three years we expect to start several projects and it depends on the development time, but I would think some we’ll start out licensing within that period. If they also reach the will depend on which product it is and how short or long the product development cycle is. Some could get there in three years, and some may take 15 years.

Will it have global outreach as well?

Stambaugh: Most definitely.

So not just San Diego and its surroundings?

Stambaugh: We have lots of ideas and smart people there, but we need all the people in the world working on this.

Will the Centre help the San Diego zoo?

Brock: Yes. The first thing would be the incubator helping us fulfill our mission. But it will also contribute money to the continued conservation efforts, which are in 35 countries around the world.

Why are you doing this as an entrepreneur?

Stambaugh: I think this is the most profound thing taking place on the planet today. Taking this genius from nature, which has sustainable, perfect solutions, and getting those into products and services is the best thing I could do the rest of my life.

As CFO of the zoo, why are you going to business?

Brock: I have the financial perspective that has made me recognize the opportunities in it. It took a while to have the zoo understand exactly the applicability, but obviously my job is the financial sustainability of my organization. I think this is a way to make it happen.


Ms. Brock joined the San Diego Zoo Global as Chief Financial Officer in June 2001. Prior to that, she was the founding partner in Brock, Tibbitts & Snell, an accountancy corporation. She served as Senior Vice President and Senior Financial Officer at ITT Residential Capital Corporation. She was also Senior Audit Manager with KPGM.
Ms. Brock received her Bachelor of Science degree with honours from San Diego State University. She sits on the Board of Trustees of San Diego State University Research Foundation, is treasurer of the board of The International Species Information System (ISIS), the world’s largest zoological service organization, and the Financial Advisory Board of the West Coast Augustinians.

Mr. Stambaugh is responsible for the management of the Centre for BioInspiration founded by the San Diego Zoo Global. He has been the CEO, Chairman of the Board or Director of several public and private companies. During his more than 35-year career, has raised over USD 500 million of capital in private and public financing, has taken a company public in both the US and Europe, and has completed several strategic partnerships with Fortune 100 companies. He founded and leads an annual corporate governance meeting in the US.
Mr. Stambaugh has a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Washburn University and is a Certified Public Accountant. He has been honoured for his corporate governance work as “Director of the Year” in 2002, 2006 and 2007 and was awarded the 2008 distinguished “James McGraw Award” for extraordinary service and contribution to the life sciences industry.

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