Thursday, June 26, 2003

Organic pest repellent with a hint of garlic

Published in the Current

They call their major piece of manufacturing equipment a “daiquiri machine.” In the development lab downstairs, three blenders sit empty on a countertop, with a bucket of crushed hot peppers and piles of garlic husks on the floor nearby.

This is not any sort of new-style restaurant. The “daiquiris” will be an insect repellent called “Anti-Pest-O,” manufactured from the peppers and garlic and dispensed into 55-gallon drums and shipped off-site for packaging and distribution.

Holy Terra Products has come a long way from the basement of Dr. Jim White’s Cape Elizabeth home, where the corporate headquarters, development lab, product mixing and garden-testing all were 18 months ago.

Their product, still waiting for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval, is an all-natural, non-toxic insect repellent that is effective on a wide range of pests, if White’s own garden is any indication. It contains none of the chemicals in most pest repellents and insecticides, and quickly gathered a large following when on the market briefly in 2002.

At the Whole Grocer in Portland, “they were standing in line,” White said.

The company then believed Anti- Pesto-O would be exempt from the EPA regulations, but had to pull the product because of state requirements.

Many stores, hoping it would be back, held shelf space for the product for several weeks, but are no longer.

“We get requests every week,” said Mike St. Clair, a former retail marketing executive at Hannaford Brothers, who joined the company recently to serve as vice president for sales and marketing. “We’re anxious to get to market.”

The company has hired a regulatory consultant in Washington, D.C., to make sure the EPA permitting process goes smoothly. That involves product-safety tests on animals, and on people.

The “ultimate irony” in a year of EPA-required safety research, St. Clair said, is that “in the process of testing, the EPA has allowed us to put (Anti Pest-O) on food products that are consumed directly by humans.”

Now the company is just a few weeks from filing. The regulatory process has been “frustrating and aggravating,” taking a lot of time and including expensive tests.

“It is almost financially prohibitive,” White said. St. Clair said there should be new rules for organic products to make it easier to prove they are non-toxic.

Even getting enough supplies is a challenge. The company had to go all the way to India to find an EPA-approved supplier of a major ingredient, neem oil.

In mid-2002, Holy Terra moved to the Center for Environmental Enterprise, a state-funded business incubator on the SMTC campus. CEE provided a lot of help, including access to public agencies and other businesses that could help. They also connected to marketing classes at USM, which did some research for the company.

USM’s patent office helped the company write and file a patent on Anti-Pest-O, which is still pending.

They were hoping to use some of the CEE building’s basement for production, but ran into problems because SMTC didn’t want to give up the space, St. Clair said.

In October 2002, the company met with a group of investors who agreed to kick in $500,000, some of which is keyed to sales figures when Anti-Pest-O goes on the market.

That cash allowed an April move to the Fox Street Business Center in the old Freightliner trucking building in Portland. The company has enough space for production there and can expand if necessary.

Now they are gearing up to produce an infomercial to hit national airwaves early in 2004. The retail market will be first, including major hardware chains as well as natural-product sections of grocery stores.

St. Clair expects Anti-Pest-O to do very well with a wide range of customers. “They’re interested in finding an alternative to toxic chemicals and toxic solutions,” he said.

The company has also met with the state Commissioner of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension program at UMaine. “Everybody is extremely interested in this,” White said.

Agricultural buyers won’t come on board until after even more studies are completed. USM and UMaine are just beginning work and may not be ready for two years.

Research will determine how it can best be used in what is called “integrated pest management,” using a variety of methods, including crop rotation and beneficial insects, to reduce the number of chemicals applied to crops.

White has plans to expand the product line, including possibly ncorporating Anti-Pest-O into other products.

The company has maintained its sense of practicality, including a not-too-official memorandum. On a white board next to St. Clair’s desk, his 10-year-old daughter has written this simple to-do list: “1. Make AntiPestO, 2. Test AntiPestO. 3. Get AntiPestO aprooved (sic). 4. Sell AntiPestO.”