The University of Alabama

Busting Bug Love: UA-Based Company Uses Green Technology to Counter Crop Pest

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Birth control for moths – that’s one way of describing the focus of a start-up company, based at The University of Alabama, hoping to take a bite out of the $100 billion hole that insects inflict each year via crop losses worldwide.

Dr. Rusty Sutterlin, a chemist, innovator and entrepreneur, and his newly formed company, Sutterlin Technologies, is targeting the brown codling moth – a pest to farmers around the planet. The company is doing so using an environmentally friendly, patent-pending biodegradable technology licensed from UA. 

And Sutterlin says members of his company’s initial target market, apple growers, are primed and ready for relief from the winged insects, whose larva sometimes appears as unwanted worm-like additions within apples.      

“The response I’m hearing indicates we can’t get this out soon enough,” Sutterlin said of his company’s powdery product, poised to enter field trials after having successfully passed tests in UA laboratories. 

The novel insect population reducer works by disrupting the insects’ mating patterns through the use of insect pheromones – chemical sex attractants which the tiny creatures emit to entice and locate mates.  

While using synthetic pheromones to reduce insect populations is, in itself, not new, the standard means of delivering pheromone is quickly falling out of favor, Sutterlin says, because of environmental concerns, in some cases, and the labor-intensive steps necessary to use them, in others.

The company’s new biodegradable approach centers around the use of pectin, a complex carbohydrate naturally occurring in fruits, including apples, and some vegetables. Used in jam production to provide the jelly-like consistency, pectin, it turns out, is adept at binding with the pheromones and later releasing them it as it degrades harmlessly in the fields.

“We take the pectin and chemically modify it,” Sutterlin says. “Then, we add the insect pheromone, mix it together, do a little chemistry and, voila, we’ve encapsulated the pheromone in pectin.

“If you’re holding it in your hand, it looks almost like flour.”

From there, growers could mix the powder with water and spray it on their fields using standard spraying equipment. As the pheromone is released, the insects are confused by the many scents which now blanket the orchards and are unable to locate mates.      

“Growers are not going to see dead moths like they would with traditional insecticides,” Sutterlin says. “Any observations are not going to be made until the next year. The bugs don’t die. The mating season does not occur, so the next season, there are no bugs.”

Also, unlike traditional insecticides, this technique doesn’t randomly kill harmless or commercially helpful insects and poses no environmental risks, Sutterlin said. Health and environmental concerns have also arisen over traditional methods, including the use of plastics and glass, to encapsulate pheromones. These have even been banned, Sutterlin says, in California.

Another traditional method, manually twisting ties containing pheromones to tree limbs is labor intensive, including the additional necessary step of later removing each tie.    

“We’re using microencapsulated pheromone,” said Sutterlin, the company’s founder and CEO.  “That’s been proven and commercialized. Encapsulating the pheromone in the pectin works. We’ve proven and shown that. The next stage is actually doing field trials with this. That’s the next big research hurdle. Funding sources are needed for that.”

In addition to applying for state and federal small business research grants and seeking private investors as funding sources, Sutterlin Technologies is one of nine finalists in the Alabama Launchpad competition where $175,000 in funding is up for grabs. First, second and third-place winners in this competition will be announced April 16 in Huntsville following presentations by each finalist.

Alabama Launchpad is a partnership between the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, the business community and seven public universities in the state, including UA. The competition is a vetting process to evaluate high growth start-ups and provides seed funding in the form of cash prizes to the top three.

This year’s nine finalists, which also include HydrogeNow, a UA-based company developing technology for the production and storage of hydrogen as a source for fuel cells, have been trimmed from a list of 45 who began the competition last fall.

The anti-bug love company has office and laboratory space in UA’s Alabama Innovation and Mentoring of Entrepreneurs, or AIME, Building. UA’s Bama Technology Incubator, of which Sutterlin is a part, nurtures high-growth, high-tech start-up businesses into potentially profitable industry leaders. The technology licensed to Sutterlin’s company through UA’s Office for Technology Transfer, was developed by Dr. Scott Spear, a research scientist in AIME, and his colleagues.    

Sutterlin Technologies, whose team includes Chris Cater, a UA graduate now pursuing an MBA/JD at the University, Cory Blanchard, a UA undergraduate majoring in chemical engineering, Ben Miller, a senior management major, and a board of advisers including representatives from both UA and the University of Missouri, believes its initial niche lies with organic apple growers, Sutterlin said.         

“The organic market is just booming,” Sutterlin said. “This makes a lot of sense for them because it’s all natural ingredients.”

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.