chitin based printed circuit board diagram showing material lifecycle

Google and Biodesign Challenge Pick Winning Student Ideas in Biotech

Over 150 students and young practitioners entered the international competition. Here are the results.

Google is known for many things, but its involvement in events promoting spatial wellbeing and sustainable development may not be the first things that come to mind. Under the leadership of Ivy Ross, vice president of the company’s Hardware Design Studio, it has been expanding its collaborations in this area of design. At the 2019 edition of Milan Design Week, the studio created a fully immersive installation (in partnership with Muuto Design, Reddymade Architecture, and the International Arts + Mind Lab at John Hopkins University) aimed at revealing the potential benefits of advanced sensors in analyzing neurological responses to the aesthetics of three different rooms.

This year, in a collaboration with Biodesign Challenge (BDC), a nonprofit student biotechnology competition, the company sponsored an international contest entitled Biodesign Sprint, putting the challenge of dynamic, sustainable design in the hands of young talents. Some 170 participants from 15 countries spent the month of October testing out different green consumer electronic concepts. These contestants—grouped in 40 professional and student-based teams—hailed from the United Kingdom to Qatar and everywhere in between. According to the BDC’s website, teams of up to 6 participants created projects that explored “ways to reduce carbon, create more sustainable materials, increase biodiversity, and bring positive change to both people and the environment.” Represented schools included Harvard, Stanford, and the Rhode Island School of Design. In their research and development, they were asked to consider how these devices might reduce carbon emissions—both in how they’re produced and implemented. These individuals and teams also investigated how they might incorporate healthier materials and support biodiversity.

stages of chitin development from shell to circuit board material.
Lokus.Found—an Indonesian art and technology nonprofit—prototyped resins from seafood waste and pine trees as an alternative to fiberglass.

Ultimately, the goal was to demonstrate the impact of biotechnology—a domain that melds art, design, and biology—could have within this market. BDC is aimed at promoting this emerging field by establishing a community of bio-designers, inspiring cross-disciplinary, collaboration and guiding public discourse. Reimagining these increasingly pervasive products is one way of addressing and possibly mitigating the looming environmental crisis.

“Sustainability and solving global environmental issues are the biggest challenges we will face as a society,” says Nathan Allen, head of design for special projects at Google. “We developed the Biodesign Sprint with Biodesign Challenge [to] facilitate new thinking and new ideas for some of these issues, prioritizing creativity, imagination, and innovation over the way things have always been done in the past.”  

Brave Crocodiles interface offers a global database of of wastestreams
Brave Crocodiles proposed a database to track sustainable raw materials and wasteflows for Google products. COURTESY GOOGLE

Announced early last month, the four finalists were selected by a jury made up of both Google and BDC experts. Lokus.Found—an Indonesian art and technology nonprofit—prototyped resins from seafood waste and pine trees as an alternative to fiberglass. Non-student runner-up Brave Crocodiles—a Concordia University and OCAD University–based team—proposed the construction of a waste stream database that harnesses community mapping to source sustainable raw materials and bioremediation services.

While student winner Mobius—a Brown University, RISD, and Cambridge University team—proposed a microbial chitin replacement for the production and disposal of printed circuit boards, runner up BI/O—out of Pratt Institute—created a drop-in solution for the Google Nest Mini that uses living microorganisms and stored carbon to create durable and home-compostable external hardware. All these winners now have the chance to work with the Google Hardware Design Studio to refine their designs and eventually bring them to market.

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