ConidioTec: Combatting a Buggy Problem
 Photo by Nick Sloff

The resurgence of bed bug infestations in the U.S. has created quite a stir over the last few decades, as exterminators and scientists alike have struggled with finding more effective methods for removal and prevention. But one beneficiary of Innovation Park residents, the TechCelerator program and the Office of Technology Management, may very well be shifting the landscape of the bed bug epidemic forever.

ConidioTec—a team of Penn State researchers turned LLC—is in the final stages of getting Aprehend, its revolutionary bed bug control product, onto the market.

Aprehend is a biological pesticide, or “biopesticide,” whereas existing bed bug control products are chemical.

“It’s the first time a fungal biopesticide has been proposed as a control method for bed bugs, so it is groundbreaking,” said Nina Jenkins, a senior research associate in Penn State’s Department of Entomology and founder of ConidioTec.

Jenkins and husband Matt Thomas, a Penn State entomology professor, began developing the product in 2012. Both had been researching pesticide development in other insects such as mosquitoes and house flies when a Ph.D. student came to them with an interesting question.

“She wanted to know if our pesticides would work on bed bugs, and we just said, ‘We’ll try it,’” said Jenkins. “And it worked fantastically.”

As it turns out, their studies found the biopesticide to work even better on bed bugs than on the mosquitoes or house flies they had been working with up until then. More importantly, it proved much more effective than chemical methods for bed bug control in multiple ways.

For one, the biopesticide only requires brief contact with the insect in order to take effect, whereas with chemical products, insects have to remain in contact with the product for much longer to absorb it. Furthermore, one only needs to spray a small area with the biopesticide, as the spores attach to the insect and are carried back and transferred to the rest of the population. Only a small percentage of the population needs to be exposed to the product to achieve 100% infection. Jenkins likens the whole process to walking on a beach with wet feet and picking up sand, no matter how brief the contact.

One application of the biopesticide also lasts for three months, providing ongoing protection of an environment for much longer than a chemical product. This ongoing control, for one example, would allow hotels to prevent bed bug infestations ahead of time rather than having to perform costly, lengthy damage control after the fact.

“We realized we had something with great potential,” said Jenkins. “We could see that we had quite a business proposition that people would be interested in.”

In 2013, Jenkins and her postdoctoral research associate Giovani Bellicanta took part in the eight-week TechCelerator, winning the $10,000 prize at the end of the course. Since then, with the help of Penn State’s Office of Technology Management and Innovation Park’s resources, the team has worked to bring their commercial product, named Aprehend, to life. They have spent the past several years completing the tedious but necessary processes of patenting and EPA registration. On March 30, 2017, Aprehend received unconditional EPA approval.

Aprehend is now in its final stages of development, such as labeling, artwork and a perfected delivery system. Jenkins says that they hope to have the product available to licensed pest control operators by this September or October.

Looking ahead, ConidioTec already has more products in its pipeline: a complementary product for Aprehend that will allow exterminators to recommend an Integrated Pest Management program for bed bugs, and a related product for ticks.

Of course, with its success and expansion, ConidioTec will soon set up operations in its own building. But Jenkins says they will always be grateful to Innovation Park for providing resources that helped them to crystallize their ideas and form their business model.

“It made the whole thing feel very real, and that we have something worth investing in,” she said.

And entrepreneurship, she thinks, will continue to be the exciting process it has been thus far.

“It’s been extraordinary,” she said. “Every day I learn something new. Every day has a problem to solve. And I guess that’s the beauty of entrepreneurship—no day is the same.”