How I did it: Karn Manhas

Olympic bedbug fears spawn business plan for B.C.’s Terramera Biosciences

Business in Vancouver’s “How I Did It” feature asks business leaders to explain in their own words how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant entrepreneurial challenges. In this week’s issue, Karn Manhas, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based Terramera Biosciences, talks about how he developed CIRKIL, a non-toxic bedbug spray made from the oil of the Indian neem tree. Even though the U.S. government helped fast-track its approval in the U.S., CIRKIL is not approved for use in Canada.

“Before Terramera, I was involved with a company that did consulting and real estate projects. But my background is in biotechnology and genetics and law.

“I was finishing law school part time and had an argument with a colleague about the Olympics. He’d seen a special on Sydney getting the Olympics. Before the Olympics, they didn’t have any bedbug problem and after the Olympics they had a huge epidemic.

“According to him, there’s nothing natural that would kill them. I thought, just because someone hasn’t found it doesn’t mean there isn’t something. I did some research – not necessarily thinking about creating a company – just to find if there was anything natural that affected them, and there is [neem oil].

“The problem with chemical pesticides is they’re neurotoxins, generally. Over time many pests like bedbugs develop a resistance. A natural [product] that has a non-toxic mode of action has less of a chance of developing resistance.

“By the end of 2009 I’d figured out how to get some of these materials and created an initial prototype. In 2010, I tried it out, and it worked. The big challenge was getting it into a commercial formulation. We needed to figure out how we could get it to work without having to spray the insect directly. That’s one of the big challenges with naturals, and that’s one of the challenges we’ve solved.

“It works not only to kill the bedbugs if you have them, but it’s also quite effective even if you don’t have them to protect you. For up to two to three weeks, you could spray your suitcase when you’re travelling and have that suitcase protected against any bedbugs or any eggs.

“The research that we were doing started getting out in the bio-pesticide industry. I got a call out of the blue from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] saying we’ve seen this data and it’s quite impressive. They had a mandate to look at less toxic materials for pest controls that are in the public interest.

“They tested it out for themselves and declared the work we were doing in the public interest and then helped us get fast-tracked through the [Environmental Protection Agency] approval system.

“We haven’t had the same level of engagement or interest [in Canada]. It has been frustrating. We are working with Canadian regulators, but it may be some time before it’s available in Canada.

“There’s only one company in the world that can produce neem oil for use in pest control products that’s registered in the U.S. So in 2012, we struck a deal to acquire that company. We officially take over later this year.”