The following article is part of our Techventure 2015 series, where I met up with Duncan J Irschick, an integrative biologist and innovator interested in the evolution of animal athletics, and about how biology informs synthetic design. He was a featured speaker at Techventure 2015, a gathering of technopreneurs and investors, where he was invited to speak about the relationship between basic research and innovation.
His research on gecko adhesion has garnered international acclaim and awards along with wide-spread media attention from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, to name a few. His innovation GeckSkinTM was hailed by CNN as one of the top five scientific breakthroughs of 2012 because of its ability to provide powerful, removable and reusable adhesion at large sizes.
Can you tell us about your innovation, GeckSkinTM
GeckSkinTM is a new bio-inspired super-adhesive that is based on the mechanics of gecko feet. It was first created in University of Massachusetts Amherst.
It was inspired by the common gecko, and their ability to climb vertical and overhanging walls. Geckos possess a complex set of specializations for adhering to smooth surfaces, which include stiff tendons that insert into their toepads. On their toepads, geckos possess millions of minute hairs called setae that act as a soft substrate that can conform to surfaces.
Geckos stick to things using van der Waals’ forces generated between the tiny fibers on their toes and whatever surface they’re on: it’s not sticky in the same sense that glue or tape is sticky; it’s a molecular attraction that works on the smoothest of surfaces and can be used over and over.
Geckskin™ is so powerful that an index-card sized piece can hold 700 pounds(~300Kg) on a smooth surface, such as glass, yet can be easily released, and leaves no residue. Imagine an adhesive that has been used for several years! That opens up new ways of thinking, about how you could use these adhesives at home and in the industry.
How did you come across Gecko’s uniqueness?
I’ve studied them since I was an undergraduate, i worked with my advisor and studied about how they clung to the walls, and clung to the surfaces and their morphology. I got to know everything about them and in the early 2000’s there were several startups that came along and found uses for it. We were able to take a step back and look at the Gecko again in a new way and come up with a new innovation based on our unique knowledge of the gecko.
Tell us more about your collaboration with Al Crosby.
The principles underlying gecko adhesion remained elusive until recently. I had been studying gecko climbing and clinging adhesion for over 20 years. I got together with polymer scientist Alfred Crosby who is also from UMass Amherst. He had been working on polymer adhesion for almost as long and was interested in creating a novel adhesive material that would embody gecko attributes.
Al is also very curious like me and he approached it with a fresh mind, from a mathematical point of view. He actually took a step back and wondered how geckos climb and he actually came up with a mathematical theory for how geckos climb. We looked and saw whether it fit with what geckos did, and it did.
That’s how GeckSkinTM was born.
What are the possible applications of GeckSkinTM?
Geckskin™ offers wide-ranging possibilities – anything from hanging things at home to synthetic devices that can easily attach and detach everyday objects such as televisions or computers to walls, as well as medical, clothing, industrial applications.
Is it available already and how is it being commercialised?
There is a startup which is commercializing GeckSkinTM, called Felsuma LLC. Its not in the market yet, but hopefully in a year it will be available.
As a Professor of Biology, why do you think basic research is important in progressing science?
Some of the major innovations in biology have come from basic research and they also came through luck! Look at the invention of Velcro. A man was walking through a field and noticed burrs that clung to his trousers and he wondered how he could turn it into something useful. That is how a multi-million dollar invention like Velcro was created!
If basic research has to progress, you need to teach people to be curious. If you invest everything in translational research what you will find is that – people will rush to a certain “hot topic of research”, and those fringe areas that really need a lot of importance will not be investigated.
The problem I think with biology is that, people think it is frivolous to simply study a gecko, shark or a frog or a plant for just its own sake. Why would you do that? The reason we study these animals is because we love them or are inspired by them. If you have someone who is inspired by it, they are going to be working harder, looking at it in even more detail and that is going to lead to new innovations.
Can you list some bio-inspired innovations?
There is a spider in Brazil called ‘wandering spider’ that is big, scary with fangs but its venom can be very useful as it has enormous pharmacological uses. Likewise, the Gila monsters are priceless venomous lizards found in Mexico and southwestern US, they have a hormone in their saliva that has similar properties to human glucagon-like peptide-1, which lowers blood sugar and increases the body’s production of insulin. A synthetic version of that, Exenatide is used as a diabetes drug now.
There are a lot of examples where the knowledge of the animal, basic natural history, basic research has led to innovations. If you did translational research only, you would never look at the wandering spiders or the Gila monsters and we will miss out on a lot of exciting things.
Also, if we didn’t have the knowledge of Gecko, we wouldn’t be having GeckSkinTM today!