Startup success: Bedbug treatment developed at Penn State shows market appeal

The ConidioTec team, from left: CEO Don McCandless, COO Giovani Bellicanta, CTO Nina Jenkins, and co-inventor and Professor of Entomology Matt Thomas. ConidioTec is seeing strong sales of its safe bed bug treatment, Aprehend. Photo from the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Showcase event in November 2017.  Credit: Photo by Jim Harding, Penn State College of Agricultural SciencesAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new, safe treatment for bedbugs developed by Penn State entomologist Nina Jenkins already is seeing a strong sales response from pest application professionals in the few months since it hit the market.

“Many of them have seen a boom in their bedbug business these past few years and are looking for leading-edge technology,” said Don McCandless, CEO of ConidioTec, the company formed around Jenkins’ discovery.

Jenkins, a senior research associate in entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, discovered that a fungal spore effectively kills bedbugs. Infestations of the pest have been rising. While they do not carry diseases, bedbugs feed on human blood as they move from one life stage to the next.

Jenkins and her team have been marching to commercialize the discovery since 2013 — making it one of the earliest success stories spawned by the Invent Penn State entrepreneurial ecosystem at the University that’s helping to push crucial discoveries out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. They’ve learned and setup the business, done extensive testing, developed the formulation and delivery system, secured Environmental Protection Agency approval, hired a CEO, and set up a production facility and office in Centre Hall.

‘This really has been quite a journey,” Jenkins said. “I have learned so much over the past five years and have benefited from the help of so many people.”

Jenkins noted the assistance provided by Matthew Smith at Penn State's Office of Technology Management, Associate Dean for Research Gary Thompson and his team in the College of Agricultural Sciences, the Ben Franklin TechCelerator team (including Don McCandless when he occupied that role), and Tyler Etter at Penn State Law Clinic at the Happy Valley LaunchBox, “to name but a few.”

These people, plus overall support from the Invent Penn State initiative, helped the team commercialize the technology.

“It’s been quite a ride, and I have enjoyed every minute of it," said Jenkins.

The proprietary formulation keeps the fungal spores alive on the sprayed surface for three months and ensures their efficacy in low-humidity conditions. Tests have not shown any adverse effects on people or pets.

Now, Jenkins and ConidioTec might just have a game-changer on their hands. They expect to be profitable this year.

The number of bedbug infestations still is rising, reported pest-control company Orkin in January. “They continue to invade our homes and businesses on a regular basis because they are not seasonal pests and only need blood to survive,” said Orkin entomologist Tim Husen in a company statement.

Apartments/condominiums, single-family homes and hotels/motels are the top three types of places where pest professionals report finding bedbugs, according to the National Pest Management Association.

“Any type of home is prone to bud begs. It has nothing to do with sanitation. We have treated for bedbugs everywhere, from newly built upscale homes to public housing,” said Husen.

Jenkins, Giovani Bellicanta, chief operating officer, and McCandless are swiftly mixing, bottling and shipping orders of the formulation from their Centre Hall location.

The EPA approved the product last March. It soon will have regulatory approval to ship to all U.S. states except New York and California, and ConidioTec is working on approvals in those two states plus Canada.

In late October, the ConidioTec team introduced Aprehend in Baltimore at Pestworld, a trade show for pest control professionals. Aprehend is sold to licensed pest control operators only, not to consumers.

“We were considered very hot at the show,” said McCandless. “We came back on Monday, recovered, and on Tuesday we were shipping product.

“It could not have unfolded any better than it did in terms of getting exposure at the show and good feedback,” he said.

The product is sprayed in a band along box-springs, baseboards, headboards and other places where bedbugs walk. As bedbugs cross the band, the spores stick to them — “like grains of sand on wet feet” — and are carried back to the insects' hiding places, known as harborages.

The spores kill bedbugs within four to 10 days following contact with a treated surface.

In 2017, the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County recognized ConidioTec as “Startup of the Year” at its awards gala on Dec. 7.

Pittsburgh television news station KDKA also aired a segment on its local news broadcast on Nov. 20.

“In terms of validation of the concept,” said McCandless, “the product worked, the spray kits worked, people are happy with the results and people are starting to re-order, which is also a good sign. Everybody who’s tried it is ecstatic with the results.”

ConidioTec has received funding from the following sources:

  • $150,000 from committed investors.
  • a nearly $50,000 grant from the Research Applications for Innovation (RAIN) program, part of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
  • a $50,000 Penn State Founders’ Investment.
  • $40,000 in USDA funds, 2012-2014.
  • $25,000 from the Ben Franklin Big Idea Contest in 2014.
  • $21,000 in USDA funds, 2012-2013.
  • $10,000 from the Ben Franklin TechCelerator in 2013.
  • a $5,000 Penn State Innovation Programs Discovered and Developed in PA R&D grant in 2014.
  • a $2,500 North Carolina Biotech business pitch prize in 2014.
  • $150,000 from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA, 2016-17.
Last Updated February 26, 2018