Have you heard of the Biosphere 2 Experiment? As business owners and entrepreneurs, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from it, especially understanding how challenges and adversity can make growing things stronger than ever. Before we dig into the lessons learned, let’s start with a bit of history on the project.
What Is Biosphere 2?
Biosphere 2 is a sealed, glass greenhouse complex near the small town of Oracle, north of Tucson, Arizona. The idea for the project was hatched at Synergia Ranch, a group of intellectuals, scientists, and investors interested in counterculture experiments. John Allen, a metallurgist and Harvard MBA, along with Ed Bass, a Texas oil billionaire, worked together to dream up and fund meetings and experiments based on ecology, sustainable development, and space colonization.
The Biosphere 2 Project was meant to be a prototype of a Mars colony and designed to be large enough to support humans in a self-sustainable manner for up to two years at a time. The complex would be able to grow crops, support domesticated animals, replenish oxygen in the air via photosynthesis, and recycle all consumables used inside.
In September of 1991, 8 people entered the Biosphere 2 complex with the intention of staying sealed inside for two years. However, serious problems soon started to develop with the experiment. Before two weeks had passed, one participant was evacuated due to a medical emergency. Even though she returned within a few hours, the media and other critics claimed this as a partial failure of the project as evacuation wouldn’t be possible on Mars. There were also issues with high carbon dioxide levels and oxygen had to be trucked in–and another media frenzy ensured.
The original crew eventually made it to the two-year mark and emerged from the complex in September of 1993. The experiment was widely reported as a failure, although there were many valuable lessons learned and data collected. The facility continues to be used today for environmental studies and the public is welcome to tour the building and learn about the current research.
My Experience with Biosphere 2
My dad worked as a scientist at the same time that the Biosphere 2 issues were being played out in the news. It often was a topic of conversation when visiting my parents’ home during this time. When my parents moved to Arizona in the late 1990s, touring Biosphere 2 with my family was at the top of my must-do list when visiting.
While touring Biosphere 2, it became painfully obvious that the overall problem of the experiment was the lack of a well-developed and effective plan. There was a plan, but the only thing worse than having no plan is following a poor plan. This poor plan led to many other fractures and problems, which is why the experiment is considered a huge failure, especially considering the cost of nearly two hundred million dollars to build and an additional cost of about one million dollars a year for fossil fuel energy to keep all the systems running.
Among the many fractures plaguing Biosphere 2, one was easily spotted the minute you stepped through the entrance: the trees were all creeping along the ground. They didn’t grow straight and tall like the trees you see in your neighborhood. Remembering my school days of being taught that it was the sun that made trees grow vertical, I witnessed plenty of sunlight within Biosphere 2 since all of the walls were made of glass. And still, these trees were spreading horizontally, not vertically.
It was explained to me that amongst everything that was not planned properly, it was forgotten that wind and the elements of nature were a necessary part of trees growing properly. Since the complex was enclosed, the trees were never exposed to wind or other climate elements. Therefore, the trees were weak, creeping, and low to the ground. With the trees weak and not performing as expected, all the benefits you would normally get from healthy trees were nonexistent, which added to the struggles of the Biosphere 2 experiment. To grow healthy and strong, trees need to withstand wind. The stronger the wind, the stronger the tree.
There are two important lessons that I personally took away from Biosphere 2 that I believe all business owners and entrepreneurs can learn from. The first is that a well-developed and meaningful plan is critical to the success of any venture. The second is that being prepared to withstand substantial challenges is the key to developing a bigger, stronger business. Otherwise, unexpected events will leave you low and creeping along rather than standing tall and proud.