Thursday, January 3, 2002

Cape entrepreneur repels insects, attracts funding

Published in the Current

Cape Elizabeth research botanist, Jim White, is now selling a new plant pest repellent, Anti-Pest-O. It is biodegradable and made from natural products.

But the real surprise, White said: “It works!”

The product, White said, fills a gap in pest-control sprays. While many sprays help control a wide range of insects, most of those are toxic to the environment.

Other products are natural but only work on one or two types of insects.

What distinguishes Anti-Pest-O from those, White said, are three things. First, some natural products use pyrethium as a base.

That chemical is a derivative of chrysanthemum plants, but, “even though it’s natural, it’s still toxic.”

Second, “we’re not killing anything,” said Neil Cambridge, one of White’s business partners.

Anti-Pest-O’s base is neem oil, derived from the seeds of the neem tree, native to India. While it does contain a reproductive inhibitor, White said, it’s the bad taste and smell that really make it effective.

And, finally, White said, Anti-Pest-O is effective against a broad range of insects, including every gardener’s mortal enemy, the Japanese beetle.

He knows. He has tried it on his nine-acre property in Cape Elizabeth, which includes extensive areas of plantings. He nearly gave up the idea after spraying the formula on Japanese beetles eating his Concord grape garden, but when he went back the next day, all the beetles were gone.

“Most pests, as soon as you spray this, they just disappear,” White said. Japanese beetles, he said, are a little more stubborn and need to take a bite out of a plant before they decide to leave it alone.

Neem oil is commercially available from garden shops, but costs up to $160 per gallon, White said.

White has mixed the oil with other natural ingredients to formulate his compound, which he sells in 32-ounce bottles for $19.95. There is some evidence that either the oil or other ingredients remain on the plant after rainstorms, he said, and may be absorbed from the ground by plants’ roots.

And something about Anti-Pest-O keeps pests from returning to plants where it has been applied. White stressed, though, that beneficial insects, like bees and nematoids, are not put off by Anti-Pest-O.

“If you give Mother Nature a chance, she will protect herself and all her little children,” White said.

He recently received a Maine Technology Institute grant to help with the commercial development of his product. The grant covers fees for incorporation, patent filing, trademarking and federal registration.

White’s award was one of 15 granted, out of 41 applications. He is getting help in those areas from Rita Logan of the Patent and Technology Office at USM.

White had submitted another application as well, but MTI wanted more information, so he will reapply for the round of grants issued in February. That grant would allow him to further develop plans for large-volume commercialization of Anti-Pest-O.

He already has formed the company, Holy Terra, to manufacture and market Anti-Pest-O. His wife, Carol Raney, and Cambridge are officers of Holy Terra, along with White.

And Holy Terra has big goals. Not only do they want to reach $1 million in sales by the end of 2002, “we would like to see sales in all regions of the country,” Cambridge said. In five years, they want to have $20 million in annual sales.

The product has been tested around the U.S. and has early interest from farmers in France as well, White said. He has submitted Anti-Pest-O to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for exemption from regulation as a non-toxic pest control chemical, as well as to the Maine and California organic farmers associations for approval for use on organic farms.

It is also selling well at the Urban Garden Store on Forest Avenue in Portland, White said.

The success so far has been encouraging, White and Cambridge said. Many people in different areas of the country have found it effective against a broad range of pests.

What’s more, Cambridge said, “They feel good about using it around their pets and children.”

With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA banning a wide variety of pest-control chemicals for excessive toxicity or contamination of the food chain, Anti-Pest-O may come at a good time for farmers and gardeners. It is biodegradable, and if it proves effective in further trials, it could be made available for use in commercial agriculture.

At present, with the manufacturing of Anti-Pest-O set up in White’s cellar, they are only making 32-ounce spray bottles, one-gallon refills, and 16-ounce concentrates. But they do plan to do larger-scale manufacturing at an undetermined location in Greater Portland.

He is also planning for the next formula of Anti-Pest-O, which will be pH-balanced and contain nutrients to help plants grow.

“We’re helping nature and the environment,” White said.