Bedbug Remedy Startup Wins $10,000 Top Prize

Posted: December 16, 2013

Dr. Nina Jenkins' team is the second from the College of Agricultural Sciences to win the startup competition this year
Dr. Nina Jenkins and Giovani Bellicanta won $10,000 to help commercialize a biopesticide for bedbugs

Dr. Nina Jenkins and Giovani Bellicanta won $10,000 to help commercialize a biopesticide for bedbugs

Dr. Nina Jenkins’ entomology team and its bedbug-killing, non-toxic biopesticide won the $10,000 top prize Dec. 10 at a competition capping an eight-week boot camp program for aspiring entrepreneurs at the Ben Franklin TechCelerator@State College

Jenkins, a senior research associate, and Giovani Bellicanta, a post-doctoral scholar, presented their business model for a treatment for bedbugs derived from a fungus found in soil that is non-toxic, effective and further prevents bedbug infestations in homes and hotel rooms for up to four months. 

The team is in the process of taking the formulation developed in the lab to market, which means securing approval from the Environmental Protection Agency, incorporating the business, establishing a production facility and securing investment funds. 

“We’re delighted,” says Jenkins. “Whilst I do not have a shopping list for this $10,000, I know we will go through it very quickly as we set up the company.” 

There is the cost of further testing required by the EPA, graphics fee for logo work, and expense of a website. 

“It’s great for us to have this money and be able to do all of those nitty-gritty things,” says Jenkins. 

The team also includes CAS entomologist Prof. Matt Thomas, and outside business mentors, Dr. Edgar Butts and Ralph Russo, of Novosentis, a company located at Innovation Park. 

Jenkins’ and Bellicanta’s win represents the second this year for College of Agricultural Sciences faculty working to commercialize their research. Interseeder Technologies won a $7,500 award in June at a TechCelerator competition.

The patent-pending Interseeder equipment allows farmers to make a single pass through a field and simultaneously seed a cover crop, side-dress a standing corn or soybean crop with fertilizer and spray herbicide. 

Another win for a CAS team means a great deal, says CAS Interim Dean Dr. Barbara Christ. “Our innovations have great potential and that is what this is all about,” said Christ. “This win leads the way for others in our college who have those projects and ideas showing them that there is potential to take the next step and for getting research beyond the lab and field.” 

The win solidifies the leadership and effort that the college is putting into its Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program, said Christ. “This will continue to build interest and enthusiasm for others to participate.” 

Jenkins’ team and seven others competed following their eight-week course for aspiring entrepreneurs that covered the nuts and bolts of starting a business from scratch. 

Their class was the fourth to graduate from the local TechCelerator Boot Camp since its creation in 2012. The Boot Camp course “taught us how to build a business model, with an emphasis on contacting and working with future customers,” said Jenkins. 

“Before the TechCelerator course, I knew we had a great idea, but how to implement it was not clear to me at all.” 

Now, she said, she understands how to get it done. For example, Jenkins learned all the components of a business model and how to put one together. She worked closely with TechCelerator coaches, Dennis Nisewonger, Mike Chmela, John Vidmar and Don McCandless, to assemble market, pricing and other financial projections and then translate all of it into a language and presentation that effectively conveys the potential of the technology to business people. 

The process took Jenkins from the scientific world to a much more uncertain world of business estimates and forecasts. “It seems that in the business world you do your best job to predict revenues etc., and they are not expected to be completely accurate,” said Jenkins, “wheras as a scientist you put every effort into proving beyond a reasonable doubt that your hypothesis is correct. You never say something in science unless it can be backed up with a reference to a peer-reviewed article or your own data.” 

Jenkins and Thomas have worked for more than 20 years on developing biopesticides for pests including locusts and grasshoppers, houseflies in poultry houses and mosquitoes to control malaria in Africa. 

In previous research projects, technologies and solutions have been licensed to companies, but the biopesticide for bedbugs has been the first application with so much potential it was worth creating a new business. 

In 2011, Jenkins was approached by Alexis Barbarin, a Ph.D. student investigating the biology of bedbugs.  Barbarin wanted to know if the fungal biopesticide technology being developed in Thomas’ lab could be applied to bedbugs. Initial tests on one of a collection of 150 strains of Beauveria bassiana, a natural fungus that causes diseases in insects, proved to be very effective at killing bedbugs within days. 

Jenkins and her team kept testing and developed a formulation suitable for use in a home or hotel. Bedbugs live in places not easily visible or reached with a vacuum cleaner, like the screw-holes in furniture and inside electrical sockets called “harborages.” During lab testing, Jenkins and her team found that if their B. bassiana formulation is sprayed around the perimeter of these harborages, as the insect crosses the sprayed surface, the disease spores relentlessly stick to its body in the same way grains of sand adhere to a wet foot at the beach. 

The spores not only kill that insect, but then travel with it back to the harborage to kill other bedbugs in much the same way grains of sand travel with a beach-goer back to a beach-house. 

The single spray effectively kills bedbugs and prevents further infestation for months, said Jenkins. Developing an innovative technology was only the beginning for Jenkins, a scientist quickly learning the completely different skillset needed to launch a company. She worked with Penn State’s Office of Technology Management on a patent application, submitted early in 2012. 

Winning EPA approval is a major hurdle to bringing the product to market. A College of Agriculture RAIN Grant — Research Applications for Innovation — has helped with the cost of required testing and the services of a regulatory consultant. There are few biopesticides approved for home use. 

“We’re breaking new ground by taking this as a sprayable product into the home,” said Jenkins. “We’re completely confident that that’s a safe and logical thing to do, but the EPA has to be convinced as well.” 

Once their EPA application is complete and Jenkins’ team is awaiting word, it plans to work on everything else required to launch the company and product, including a production facility, equipment, investor funding, and marketing. 

“The current solutions to control bedbugs are failing and there’s a desperate need for something that will address this issue, and our product really does,” said Jenkins.