American Biophysics, a small private company based in North Kingstown, R.I., runs a healthy business selling the "Mosquito Magnet," a system to rid American backyards of biting insects, according to its new CEO Devin Hosea.
Simply described, the magnet emits a humanlike scent that includes carbon dioxide and moisture to attract bloodsucking insects. When the bugs flutter past, they're sucked into and suffocated by a vacuumlike device.
Now AmBio, as the company is commonly called, is upping the ante with a "smart" mosquito net, or computerized defense system, to serve the corporate and public health sectors. By the first quarter of 2006, AmBio executives hope to have finalized sophisticated software to control a network of magnets--forming a kind of wide-scale fence--which will be able to communicate with a central network through wireless 802.11b technology.
That way, the system will be able to efficientlyfrom golf courses and resorts, or even help mitigate cases of malaria in third world countries, according to Hosea.
"We got the idea from institutions that were jury-rigging our technology to computer networks and mesh networks, with PC panels, to see how many mosquitoes they'd caught or how much propane they had left...It's unbelievable the lengths people will go to, to get rid of mosquitoes," said Hosea, a former National Science Foundation Fellow in artificial intelligence.
"We've meshed a great mosquito-catching machine with a computer technology on top of it, and wireless network technology on top of that, and then turned it into a great defensive shield against mosquitoes coming into your habitat," he said.
This week, AmBio received a cash infusion of $15 million to commercialize the planned corporate product. Investors led by Chicago-based Ritchie Capital Management, an early backer of the biotech company, participated in a series B round of funding in 7-year-old AmBio. Hosea, who is managing director of Ritchie Capital's Biotechnology Venture Group and former president of Internet software company Predictive Networks, was also named AmBio's president and CEO this week.
Mosquito-catching has long been part of a thriving market for gizmos. People living in bug-bite climates like Atlanta and Boston have relied on everything from spray repellants and rolled-up newspapers to netting barriers and devices like the bug-sucking Bugzooka.
Aside from the pest factor, mosquitoes can carry diseases like the West Nile virus in the U.S. and malaria in developing nations. Malaria is one of the largest killers outside developed countries, and as many as 90 percent of malaria victims contract the illness from infected mosquitoes.
AmBio spends about $5 million to $10 million annually on research for new attractants that will lure new species of biting insects into its traps, including female mosquitoes (the ones that bite), and sand flies.
Its current, odorless formula combines carbon dioxide, moisture, heat and a short-range attractant called octenol. Each magnet, powered 24 hours a day by a standard 20-pound propane tank, or a combination of propane and electricity supplied through a low-voltage (12-volt) power cord, has a 100-yard range for drawing bugs.
The main device is basically a vacuum cleaner that sucks insects in and dehydrates them until they die "a horrible death," Hosea said. "So far we don't know of any mosquito rights group, so it's totally PC to kill as many as you want." (Non-bloodsucking bugs, such as butterflies and beetles, are not attracted.)
The Mosquito Magnet currently has roughly 65 percent of the antibug market, according to the company.
The coming smart magnet system harkens back to the early days of networked PCs, Hosea said, when people came up with the idea of "LAN-tastic," for a local-area network or a ring of network connectivity.
AmBio plans to create an electronicof magnets all communicating with one another through the 802.11b wireless standard. Centralized servers in the middle of the network, or what AmBio's chief technology officer calls "brain machines," will record and analyze data transmitted from the computerized magnets on air quality, humidity, wind direction and pollutants. The data is transmitted to AmBio and its client for remote administration.
If it's raining on a magnet-wired golf course, for example, the system will shut down to save power and propane. If the wind is coming out of the north, the south line magnets will shut down and let the mosquitoes blow by.
AmBio has already set up a beta test of the system at a house in Key West, Fla., where mosquitoes thrive. "It's a phenomenally nasty place in terms of bugs," Hosea said. The house is on two acres surrounded with the magnets.
Next year, the company plans to test its system at the refugee camp Trat Camp in southeast Thailand on the border of Cambodia. The camp houses roughly 15,000 refugees, but the population drops annually by 500 to 600 people because of malaria. The project will be funded by money from the United Nations.
But will it work?
Gilbert Waldbauer, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of "Insights From Insects: What Bad Bugs Can Teach Us," said that despite advances in bait-traps like the Mosquito Magnet, attempts to control adult mosquitoes have largely been futile.
Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water like golf-course ponds or within swampy regions. One pond can produce enough adult mosquitoes to scatter over five square miles during breeding time, Waldbauer said.
"The way to control mosquitoes is to go to these ponds and float a harmless oil," that will suffocate the larvae when they come up for air, he said. "It seems like an awful lot of trouble and expense to do otherwise."
"Think of this as a war, and the enemy has a really good cannon," Waldbauer said. "You have to attack where they're loading artillery."