The last thing Don Knechtges and Tom Tyrrell needed was another startup.
Tyrrell founded or co-founded a dozen enterprises, from American Steel & Wire, now a part of Charter Steel in Wisconsin, to venture capital fund Glengary to Akron tech firm Segmint to Cleveland nonprofit Business Volunteerism Unlimited.
Knechtges moved from maintaining the family tax business to owning and operating an Elyria injection-molding concern, even as he advanced a corporate career that began in BFGoodrich research and development. After he retired in 2001 as a senior vice president from Avon Lake polymer-compounder PolyOne Corp., he took on such projects as establishing the Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise for Lorain County Community College, then the Innovation Fund for the college’s foundation.
But birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, as the adage goes.
The serial entrepreneurs learned about biomimicry, an emerging discipline that adapts nature’s designs and processes to solve man’s engineering and design problems. They envisioned developing an entirely new industry based on the concept right here in Northeast Ohio — and started Great Lakes Biomimicry to build a foundation for it. Since its inception in 2010, the nonprofit, together with the University of Akron, has developed a biomimicry fellowship — the first of its kind in the world, Knechtges and Tyrrell believe — and introduced the idea to everyone from schoolchildren to corporate executives via educational programs that further their mission.
“We as a region have never made a transition from one industry to the next…where we built an educational system that, when we achieved what we were after, we had enough people to fill those jobs,” says Tyrrell, now 71. “Our focus was: Biomimicry is going to happen; it’s going to happen here.”
Tyrrell first heard the word “biomimicry” in 2008 while he was working on the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative, an effort to revitalize the Cuyahoga River valley. A computer search yielded examples such as a quieter, faster, more fuel-efficient Japanese bullet train modeled after a kingfisher’s splash-proof bill. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is really neat! This is going to change the world!’” he remembers.
Two years later, after an attempt with another nonprofit to develop biomimicry as a tool to further environmental sustainability, Tyrrell broached the concept to Knechtges. He was a “kindred spirit” Tyrell had gotten to know during Glengary’s work on GLIDE and the Innovation Fund — a man who possessed an engineering background to complement his marketing chops.
“As Tom and I talked, we both recognized very quickly that there were some very unique things about Northeast Ohio that, if we moved in an effective way forward with biomimicry, we could become the world center of economic development driven by education around [it],” remembers Knechtges, now 75. “No one else had started that in the world, and no one else was focused on it.”
Knechtges and Tyrell prepared to approach the area’s three standout assets — its strong concentration of colleges and — niversities, abundance of top corporations and large philanthropic base — by spending the better part of the next year meeting with approximately 70 regional activists from diverse sectors to confirm that their goal was achievable. They also met with University of Akron evolutionary biologist Dr. Peter Niewiarowski, a biomimicry expert interested in developing a dedicated educational track. The trio worked with the University of Akron to develop a biomimicry-focused doctoral fellowship within its integrated biosciences program.
“What we created brought together that base at the University of Akron with corporate sponsors in private industry,” Knechtges says.
The fellowship, which the university began offering in September 2012, combines biomimicry classes in a range of areas — art, biology, engineering — with practical work experience. Instead of receiving the usual university stipend and teaching as a graduate assistant, Knechtges explains, each student spends 15 to 20 hours a week at a company that pays him or her an annual stipend for five years. There, the student helps develop biomimicry-inspired products and solutions.
“The critical factor is that the companies own the intellectual property generated during that work experience,” stresses Knechtges.
According to Knechtges, the program has 11 fellows in major corporations such as Goodyear, Lubrizol, Parker Hannifin and Sherwin-Williams. Innovations include a commercial touchless dispenser developed by GOJO Industries, maker of Purell-brand hand sanitizer, that uses 50 percent less energy than its battery-draining predecessor — an improvement inspired by the human heart’s efficiency in moving blood through its chambers.
Another five fellows are spending their 15 to 20 hours a week working to develop biomimicry curricula and train teachers in schools and/or districts throughout Cuyahoga, Lorain and Summit counties, depending on the sponsor’s interests. Knechtges points to the program one fellow started at Lake Ridge Academy, a private school in North Ridgeville, that has been transplanted to public counterparts in Amherst, Elyria, Lorain and Wellington.
“We’re hopeful that they stay in Northeast Ohio,” Knechtges says of the doctoral fellows. “If they want to be in education, fine. But more importantly we want them to, if you will, ‘pollinate’ the companies in Northeast Ohio. Because they’re very talented, it also creates Northeast Ohio as the thought-leader of the world in biomimicry.”
Knechtges and Tyrrell, along with a director of outreach, two full-time employees and two part-timers, work out of a second-floor office at the Desich Business and Entrepreneurship Center on Lorain County Community College’s main campus. “Most of us operate out of our cars and at Yours Truly and places like that,” Tyrrell quips. Support has come in the form of dollars from 12 regional foundations, thousands of hours of labor volunteered by a dozen individuals, and gratis legal, financial and media services provided by the likes of Thompson Hine, Cohen & Co. and Marcus Thomas. Knechtges is working on promoting workshops designed to educate private-industry executives about the value and fundamentals of biomimicry in order to create revenue streams for the nonprofit, while Tyrrell has turned his attention to securing federal grants and more foundation funding for public-school education.
“Every single person says, ‘This makes total sense. There’s logic there. I’m supportive of it. Go get ’em!’” Tyrrell says.
Ask these two men why they’re undertaking the effort to fund and grow a fledgling nonprofit at this point in their lives, and both are quick to answer.
“Life without making a contribution is existence,” Knechtges replies. “And I don’t want to (just) exist.”
“The more people that we can help, to be able to be better than what they would have been if we hadn’t entered their lives, that’s what our job is,” Tyrrell adds.