Anthony Brennan found inspiration for his breakthrough products in an unlikely source: sharks. Brennan, a University of Florida professor of materials science and engineering, had been looking for a way to keep barnacles from sticking to ship hulls. He wondered why sharks didn't attract barnacles and algae the way whales do. Brennan discovered that microscopic textures on sharkskin make the creatures resistant to barnacles--as well as to bacteria.

Now his company, Sharklet Technologies, recreates those textures to produce germ-deflecting surfaces for hospital countertops, medical devices, office desks, and even iPhone cases. So far, the Aurora, Colorado-based company has raised more than $5 million from investors. "People are surprised that we found such an elegant, environmentally friendly solution from such a fierce predator," says Sharklet CEO Mark Spiecker.

Like Sharklet, other companies are turning to nature for bold ideas about how to solve a range of complex human problems. In the burgeoning field of biomimicry, brine shrimp inspire a new way to preserve DNA, and bees influence energy-saving technology.

The concept of biomimicry, or "bioinspiration," isn't exactly new; Leonardo da Vinci modeled many of his inventions and designs on what he saw in nature and the human body. But lately, interest in the field has been growing. In 2013, the number of biomimicry patents increased 27 percent compared with the prior year, according to the Da Vinci Index, published by Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, which tracks the field.

"We've only scratched the surface," says serial entrepreneur and investor Larry Stambaugh of Rubicon Venture Capital. "Nature may have already solved nearly every problem we face today." Stambaugh, who helped the San Diego Zoo launch its Center for Bioinspiration to assist companies in developing new products, wants to create a venture fund and tech transfer incubator to give biomimicry startups the support they need to get off the ground.

For companies interested in tapping Mother Nature, more resources are becoming available. Some universities, including the University of Akron and Arizona State University, have launched biomimicry programs and offer licensing deals. And some consulting firms specialize in nature-inspired innovations. "There was a time when people said, 'Bio what?' " says Janine Benyus, a biologist who has worked with companies--including Nike and Boeing--to reformulate products using biomimicry. "Now people ask, 'Why can't my company come up with something this novel and sustainable?' " Recently, her consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8, analyzed tick and mosquito digestion to find ways to remove bloodstains in hospital laundries with less chlorine.

Biomimicry may hasten the development of new ecofriendly materials, particularly when combined with 3-D printing technology. For instance, a furniture startup wanting cushy material for a chair might be able to print it out of material based on the cellular structure of plants, says Benyus. It makes sense to look to the environment for greener products. "Nature is pretty smart," says Stambaugh. "It throws away the things that don't work and keeps those that do. There's so much to learn from it."

Cribbed From Mother Nature

A handful of companies that have drawn inspiration from biology:

Energy-saving technology
Inspiration: Bees
Regen Energy designed software based on the "swarm logic" of bees. With that technology, heating and cooling units work together wirelessly to maximize energy efficiency.

Preservative for DNA
Inspiration: Brine shrimp
Remember Sea-Monkeys? Biomatrica copied the mechanism that protects them as they dry to create a method for preserving DNA and RNA.

Adhesive
Inspiration: Geckos
Felsuma's adhesive product, Geckskin, was influenced by the gecko and its ability to walk on walls. Geckskin forms a strong bond but can be easily removed without any residue.

3-D design software
Inspiration: Human bones
Influenced by the way bones develop in the human body, Altair created 3-D design software for products like planes and cars. The program builds up density where there is more stress and thins out the design where there is none.

Find Your Bioinspiration

Four tips for gathering ideas from the natural world:

1. Ask questions. Like many innovations, those based on biomimicry often start with curiosity. Before you design a product, ask yourself: What do I want the product to do? "If you want to create a waterproof coating," says Biomimicry 3.8's Benyus, "you should look at organisms that repel water and their underlying design principles."

2. Browse the research. AskNature.org provides a free searchable database of ways that nature solves problems--for example, to allow honeybees to land gently and jackrabbits to regulate their internal temperature. You can also peruse research on Google Scholar.

3. Get up close with Flora and Fauna. Biomimicry 3.8 takes designers on one-week expeditions through Costa Rica, where they learn about biomimicry and observe nature while hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and walking on the beach. Teams solve real-life design problems using what they learn in the rainforest and the ocean. The San Diego Zoo's biomimicry program works with companies to develop, say, better packaging or new industrial materials.

4. Tap local networks. Several organizations host local events to connect you with university professors and biomimicry experts. Among them: Great Lakes Biomimicry in Cleveland; Biomimicry NYC; Biomimicry Oregon in Portland; and the Bay Area Biomimicry Network.

From the Dec 2014/Jan 2015 issue of Inc. magazine