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Bedbugs beware: Startups bet on mother nature

Bed bugs have been making a comeback in many parts of the world.


Before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics even began, Karn Manhas found himself in a heated discussion about a possible outcome for Canada that had nothing to do with the podium: a bedbug boom.

It wasn't inconceivable. By the end of the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia, about 98 per cent of the hotels in Sydney had at least one room infected with the blood-sucking insects. Australian scientist Stephen Doggett noted a 5,000-per-cent increase in the treatment of bedbugs between 2000 and 2005 in Sydney's state of New South Wales.

Europe and North America are dealing with a resurgence of the pests, and Toronto and Vancouver are on a top-10 list of most-infested cities in North America compiled by Insight Pharmaceuticals. These unsettling facts left Mr. Manhas and a colleague arguing about solutions.

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Pesticide use is on the wane, driven by concern about toxic substances and potential insect resistance. And the pesticides that remain aren't necessarily working. They don't kill bedbug eggs, so once they hatch, exterminators need to return. And now, bedbug populations are showing a strong immunity to the class of pesticides most commonly in use.

Mr. Manhas, a former member of the B.C. legislature with a degree in biology and a minor in biotechnology, decided he had something to prove: Natural alternatives could stamp out bedbugs. He hadn't planned on developing a research project or founding a company. He just wanted to win the argument, he says.

Among the companies working on the bedbug problem is Rest Assured MC Inc., based in Ottawa. Heat is their weapon, says Lawrence Chadnick, president of the firm, which is a manufacturer and supplier of bedbug products.

Treating a whole house with heat will kill everything, he says. Mr. Chadnick has developed a heat chamber that is portable and electric.

Eco Bug Doctor, based in Montreal, has devised a "self-sterilizing bed" that uses both heat and bedbug traps to allow people to have a worry-free night. The only way that a bedbug can travel up onto the Good Knight bed is through a system of traps. If the traps don't stop them, then the owner can heat the bed with a cover stored beneath it. It shuts off automatically when finished.

"For 16 years, we were doing ecological solutions, but we found that no matter what you do, it is a pretty labour intensive process," says Laurel Maloney, director of marketing for the company. "We wanted something easier and something that would make it so that the user could actually be their own bug buster."

The bed has gone through five trials, and the company is finalizing certification from the Canadian Standards Association, and gearing up for its first major order. It is also negotiating a contract with the Canadian government to provide beds for military workers, who often find themselves in pest-ridden situations.

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With fewer pesticides allowed on the market, there is a need for biopesticides that carry no harm to humans, animals or beneficial insects.

Vancouver-based SemiosBIO creates synthetic pheromones that disturb a pest's communication system and work to repel them from, say, a bed or a piece of luggage. The aim is to prevent people from transporting the bugs.

"We would use natural pheromones, but the challenge is that they never last very long in the air," says Michael Gilbert, chief executive officer and chief scientist at SemiosBIO. "We generate products that are similar to the natural, and make a small change to it so that it lasts longer."

SemiosBIO is awaiting approval in Canada and the U.S. By the end of the year, it will be ready to release a product for travellers or for people such as police officers and ambulance drivers who may go into infested homes.

As for Mr. Manhas, he is now the CEO of Terramera Inc., a Vancouver company he founded that is set to release Cirkil, containing neem oil, which testing has shown will kill bedbugs and their eggs. Also, the dried residue will kill a bedbug for two to three weeks after application, Mr. Manhas says. "It's the only thing known to kill eggs without contact," he adds.

Neem oil is a natural insecticide that comes from an evergreen tree in India. The oil interferes with insects' metabolic system and kills them. Bedbugs aren't likely to develop a resistance to it, Mr. Manhas says.

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His company operates out of a 4,000-square-foot lab in Vancouver and employs 15 people.

In tests, Mr. Manhas's products have been shown to kill 100 per cent of bedbugs within 24 to 48 hours, but it works even more quickly on cockroaches, which die in one to four hours. Ants can die in less than an hour. The product kills body lice almost immediately, he says.

He plans on having a small travel-size product available in the United States this summer for bedbugs. "We have an opportunity right now to really change the way the world does pest control," he says.

Early days for biopesticides

"Everyone is asking why we don't have more biopesticide product, but it's still in its infancy," says Susan Boyetchko, a research scientist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and an expert on the burgeoning business of crop biopesticides.

Most companies researching biopesticides are small and have difficulty attracting investment to get their discoveries onto the market. "Money would be a driving factor," said Dr. Boyetchko, who was the only Canadian among 600 delegates at a biopesticides conference in Italy last month.

Finding the right active ingredient may be the easiest step, she said. Efforts tend to falter when researchers lack expertise in other areas, such as knowing how to formulate a product for mass-production and how to give it a longer shelf life.

In a paper that Dr. Boyetchko wrote with Antonet Svircev on Canadian biopesticides and bioherbicides, she noted that 100 of 150 biopesticides were being developed by companies with fewer than 50 employees, and only 10 by companies with more than 149 workers.

Multinational companies are focusing less on biopesticide development and more on developing seed technologies such as genetically modified crops. Biopesticides make up just 1.5 to 2.5 per cent of the total pesticide market.

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