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The moment a startup grows into a corporate, innovation dies: Denise DeLuca, Director at Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Shruthi Mohan
31st Mar 2018
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Denise DeLuca focuses on radical innovation, co-creativity, and leadership inspired by nature, and works with individuals and organisations to re-discover their natural paradigms, helping them embrace their full potential. 

In her 20-year-long career, US-based Denise DeLuca has worn several hats. From being a thinker, educator, and practitioner in biomimicry, she is now Director of the Sustainable Design Program at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). As an industry expert and someone who has overlooked the stratum of social enterprises, she strongly believes biomimicry is the way forward.

Born during the Vietnam War, Denise grew up in Wisconsin, participating in protests with her activist-nurse mother. From peace rallies to organic gardening, Denise and her four sisters did it all, she says. Born to professor parents, the world of science was an obvious choice; she chose to study civil engineering.

She graduating from the University of Wisconsin as an engineer, and then went for a master’s degree at Montana State University.

During my engineering and further studies, I kept getting frustrated thinking of how everyone was creating more problems and fewer solutions. There were very few people and means to ask the right kind of questions, so the idea of being a part of that community sounded fascinating, I had this eternal search and was then introduced to biomimicry, she says.

Balancing work and passion

Denise started her career as a consultant in a US firm. Over the next few years, she worked for the government of the state of Montana. The state, which was then facing water issues, welcomed avoidable fights for the fishing community, hydropower, and so on. This phase also brought her into the spotlight when she introduced computer modeling to host discussions between the government and the beneficiaries on sustainable usage of water resources.

In 2009, she moved to the UK with her husband and family. This was the time she decided to pursue a career in biomimicry, the design and production of materials, structures, and systems modelled on biological entities and processes. As a subject, it acts as a catalyst that builds sustainable solutions to human challenges through innovation. This concept of clubbing the experience with the intent of promoting a sustainable livelihood caught her interest.

I told myself to take a new approach, because there is something that the technology is doing wrong. I invested my energy into building leadership and business models, Denise says.

Finding solutions

“When I was consulting, I realised that navigating and finding solutions to problems was equally important. I never really had the space to explore it as a practice though. In 2006, I attended a workshop by a founder and her partner of a biomimicry firm; that was really the beginning!” she says.

Her next stop was Swedish Biomimetics 3000, a Sweden-based pharmaceutical manufacturing company that focuses on innovative and biomimetically inspired pharmaceutical technology. She served as a project lead till 2009, after which she started her own sustainable resource consulting business – Emergent Solutions. Later, she went on to being the Co-founder of Biomimicry for Creative Innovation (BCI).

Denise believes that if you “really want to make quick money, there are some horrible things you can do and social enterprises are not one of them”.

 Why biomimicry?

As a practitioner of biomimicry, biomimetics, and business inspired by nature, Denise brings radical innovation, co-creativity, and leadership inspired by nature to conventional organisations, catalysing their journey of radical transformation. For someone who has extensive experience navigating processes in public and private sector, she finds tremendous joy in working with individuals and organisations to re-discover their natural paradigms.

After her stint at the BCI, she is now the Director of the Sustainable Design Program  at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, one of the oldest art and design schools across the globe. Denise oversees a one-of-its-kind online course, the multidisciplinary Master of Arts in Sustainable Design (MASD) degree; the course welcomes students from across the world to practice sustainable solutions to real-world problems.

For someone who has been a social entrepreneur, Denise places importance on co-creation for value-added interactions, both for theory and social innovation.

Realigning with Nature is one of the recent books Denise has published

Co-create, not collaborate

“Collaboration is all about ‘I do my thing, you do your thing, and let’s together put up a show’. However, there is something beyond that, and it’s called co-creation. Its emergent thinking where your abilities are tested. Even when you are breathing, you are only doing half of the work; nature does the rest of the conversion. We humans think of ourselves as individual entities, but that’s not true. We have to leverage that,” she says.

On why startups and smaller organisations can adopt biomimicry, she says, “The problem is that big organisations cannot deal with radical innovation. The way risk is allowed does not support radical innovation. What makes startups so magical is when they are creative and co-creative. Startups involve radical innovation, but the moment they grow into corporates, the innovation dies. The whole organisation has to work for the cause and promote sustainable living.”

Startups without radical innovation are like weeds, after one point they don’t survive, Denise ends.
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