Exosect: an innovative electrostatic technology for environmentally friendly pest control
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Southampton
Unit of AssessmentBiological Sciences
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Biological Sciences: Genetics
Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences: Crop and Pasture Production, Horticultural Production
Summary of the impact
Based on innovative technology invented and developed through research at
the University of Southampton, sustainable pest control products by
spinout company Exosect are being employed around the world to preserve
the global food supply. Since 2008 its bio-control products have been
newly adopted in diverse situations: by Sainsbury's in response to
consumer pressure to reduce chemicals in food; by Bayer CropScience, who
bought rights, in a multimillion pound deal, to a product for the
protection of bee populations; by English Heritage to preserve the UK's
cultural heritage. The technology has inspired a US$1m Gates Foundation
grant for poverty reduction efforts in sub-Saharan Africa and raised
awareness among conventional pesticide manufacturers of the environmental
and economic benefits of bio-control solutions.
Climate change and rising global populations mean that by 2050, food
production must increase by a projected 70%. However, CABI International
estimates that 40% of all food/fibre is lost to pests and diseases despite
the overuse of synthetic pesticides.
During the 1990s University of Southampton researchers began
investigating a more environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic
insecticides. Inspired by the trapping mechanism of carnivorous pitcher
plants, Philip Howse, Professor of Biology (1967-2001), patented the idea
that a natural or synthetic powder with electrostatic properties could be
used in pest management. After the patent publication in 1994, Howse
worked on the proof of concept to formulate a unique electrostatic wax
powder Entostat®, which went on to lie at the heart of
all the products developed by subsequent University spin-out company
The first application of Entostat was a cockroach trap invented
by the Howse group in which a bait attracts the cockroaches and the powder
destabilises them, causing them to fall into the trap — the same mechanism
employed by a pitcher plant. Howse's group demonstrated that waxes have
electrostatic charge generation and retention properties that allowed wax
particles to adhere to the natural charge of the insect cuticle. Carnauba
wax (a cuticular wax derived from natural plants) was identified as
excelling in this desired property. Laboratory and field trials during the
late 1990s demonstrated that Entostat could be used to deliver
active ingredients to insect populations, although commercial sensitivity
delayed publication until the early 2000s [3.1].
Southampton researchers then explored the idea that combining Entostat
powder with pheromones could disrupt mating cycles in a process known as
`auto-confusion'. Female moth pheromones were combined with Entostat
in a tablet. Males were attracted to the mixture, which clings to them by
static electricity and tricks them into trying to mate with each other.
When combined with conventional synthetic chemicals, Entostat's
targeted delivery reduced the volumes of chemicals required, thus
producing a green bio-control [3.2-3.4]. Dr Jenny Knapp, Lecturer,
University of Southampton (1993-2000), used pheromones to disrupt mating
in codling moths [3.5], later resulting in the development of Exosex®
CM, one of the most successful products in Exosect's portfolio.
This body of research underpinned the formation of spinout Exosect in
2001. Howse became the company's Technology Director and the University
appointed Guy Poppy (Senior Lecturer, 2001-2003, Professor of Ecology,
2003-present) to direct the Wolfson Unit of Chemical Entomology. In
collaboration with Exosect, Poppy was awarded two Small Business Research
Initiative (SBRI) grants from the BBSRC to work on a first-generation
product for lepidopteran pests such as grape vine moths, and on lure and
kill methods for the Mediterranean fruit fly which led to further
underpinning research outputs [3.3, 3.4, 3.6]. These provided the
mechanistic understanding necessary for six of the seven management tools
developed and marketed by Exosect.
Exosect remained in the University's business incubator until 2005 and
Southampton staff continued collaborative research with Exosect on
pest-control products. Dr Christopher Jackson (1985-current) and PhD
student, Ian Baxter (2004-2008), demonstrated the efficacy of pheromones
coupled with Entostat in the control of indoor moth pests, in
particular the Indian meal moth [3.6]. This proved critical in the
development of Exosex SPTab, the tablet that programmes pests to
disrupt mating amongst their own population.
References to the research
Publications: (bold = UoS staff)
[3.1] McGonigle, D.F., Jackson, C. W. (2002) Effect of surface
material on electrostatic charging of houseflies (Musca domestica
L), Pest Management Science, vol 58 (4) p.374-380[3.2] Howse, P.
(2004) Mechanism of Exosex auto-confusion system of mating disruption
International Pest Control, vol 45 p. 321-322
[3.2] Howse, P.E. (2004) Mechanism of Exosex auto-confusion system
of mating disruption. International Pest Control, vol 45 p. 321-322
[3.3] Barton, L., Armsworth, C., Baxter, I., Poppy, G.,
Gaunt, L., Nansen, C. (2006) Adhesive powder uptake and transfer by
Mediterranean fruit flies, Ceratitis capitata (Dipt. Tephritidae),
Journal of Applied Entomology, vol 130, p. 257-262
[3.4] Nansen, C., MacDonald, K. M., Rogers, C. D., Thomas,
M., Poppy, G. M., Baxter, I. H. (2007) Effects of sex pheromone in
electrostatic powder on mating behaviour by Lobesia botrana males
Journal of Applied Entomology, vol 131, p. 303-310.
[3.5] Hughes WOH; Gailey D; Knapp JJ (2003) Host
location by adult and larval codling moth and the potential for its
disruption by the application of kariomones Entomologia Experimentalis
et Applicata, vol. 106 (2), p. 147-153
[3.6] Baxter, I.H., Howard, N., Armsworth, C. G., Barton, L.
E. E., Jackson, C. (2008) The potential of two electrostatic powders
as the basis for an auto dissemination control method of Plodia
interpunctella (Hubner) Journal of Stored Product Research,
vol. 44 (2), p. 152-161
Elucidating the mechanisms of auto-confusion — a novel approach to
lepidopteran mating disruption systems (BBSRC SBRI —Howse (Exosect) &
Poppy (UoS) ca £200,000) — 2002-2004 (This grant included funding
for a technician, Craig Rogers, who went on to work for Exosect and
completed his masters at Southampton with Professor Poppy in 2012).
A modelling approach to improving lure and kill strategy for controlling
fruit flies (BBSRC SBRI Poppy (UoS) & Howse (Exosect) ca
£200,000) - 2004-2006.
Patent GB2268676 Pest control: Inventor Philip Howse; Assignee University
of Southampton; Published 19.01.1994.
Details of the impact
Research at the University of Southampton formed spinout company Exosect
in 2001. The company's success since 2008, through products entirely based
on Southampton's technology, has had a positive impact on global food
supply chains and contributed to efforts to meet two of the UN Millennium
Development Goals: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and ensuring
Exosect has grown to employ 20 staff, the majority of whom were trained
or received postgraduate qualifications at the University, and has
attracted more than £14.5m from investors (£10m since 2008) [5.1].
Since 2008 it has made 53 patent applications with 24 granted, and 22
national product registrations [5.2]. Growing recognition of the
environmental benefits of Exosect's products resulted in them winning
`Best New Product' for Exosex SPTab at the Society for Food
Hygiene and Technology Awards in 2008 [5.3], and winning their
category in the Guardian Global Cleantech 100 awards (2009 and 2010) [5.3].
Philip Harris, Business Manager at Exosect, said: "Exosect simply
wouldn't exist if it weren't for Howse's original vision; to use
electrostatic powders in pest control management. The work done at the
University through the 1990s to prove the viability of his concept was
critical, and University backing was vital to help Exosect win initial
investment funding. Poppy's contribution in securing two BBSRC grants
was essential for designing better deployment strategies of our products
and provided peer-reviewed journal articles, which increased confidence
in Exosect's technology and products, helping us attract continued
Exosect licenses the use of its products, all using the Entostat
formulation, to international distributors, benefitting governments and
peoples around the world. It is estimated that 80% of EU crops currently
depend, in part, on insect pollinators which are under threat. Bee
populations are declining yet they pollinate nearly US$200bn worth of
crops worldwide. Exomite® Pro, which treats
against varroa mite in bees and reduces chemical residues on crops, came
to market in 2004 when resistance to conventional pesticides was on the
rise. In 2010, the rights to Exomite Pro were sold to Bayer
CropScience for several million pounds (sum commercially confidential).
Bayer said the acquisition would provide beekeepers with "sustainable
solutions to improve the health of their bees and beehives" [5.5].
The autoconfusion technology is employed in Exosex CM (codling
moth), which holds an estimated five per cent market share for codling
moth protection in apples and pears. In 2010, Sainsbury's highlighted its
commitment to reducing pesticide residues in food by announcing that this
product would be used on their UK apples. Sainsbury's sells one in four
apples in the UK and their `Concept Orchards' in Kent [5.6] have
helped it treble apple yields from 20 tonnes to 60 tonnes per hectare [5.7].
In Indian field trials the yellow stem borer product (YSBTab) improved
rice yields by 18%, compared to conventional pesticides. The trials also
found an 80% increase in beneficial insects [5.8]. With 44m
hectares of rice grown annually in India, Exosect is in the process of
licensing the product to a commercial partner. It will reduce the
country's high dependency on pesticides — research shows that in one
district in Andhra Pradesh there are more than 1,000 pesticide poisoning
cases each year causing hundreds of deaths.
Stored moth product Exosex SPTab is used by multinational food
manufacturers and retailers (names commercially confidential) to control
moth populations in food processing plants, thus avoiding the need for
harmful phosphine gas fumigation. Exosect is in the process of licensing
the product to commercial partners in North America. In 2013 Exosect
secured an exclusive license for a fungal isolate, from the Food,
Environment and Research Agency in the UK to control grain store insects,
and won a US$1m Gates Foundation grant to use the same technology to
reduce poverty of subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa [5.9].
Exosect's clothes moth product, Exosex CLTab, is backed by English
Heritage, and is being used in public buildings around the country,
including the Houses of Parliament, Hampton Court Palace and the Royal
Opera House, to protect priceless collections from attack by clothes moths
The Exosect technology played a part in changing the legislative
procedure for biopesticides, reducing red tape for bringing new products
to market that are less harmful to the environment [5.11]. In
partnership with DEFRA, Exosect included Exosex CM in a pilot
Biopesticides Scheme that inspired legislative changes in the mid 2000s.
The impact is ongoing; the new legislation stimulated interest among the
dominant conventional pesticides manufacturers in the potential of
biological control techniques. Exosect says that "within the last two
years, in light of reduced regulatory hurdles, over US$2bn has been
invested by leading agrochemical companies in buying up biological
specialists e.g. Bayer's purchase of Exomite Pro" [5.4].
Sources to corroborate the impact
[5.2] For evidence of IP portfolio see www.exosect.com
(under `Products') and list of patents.
[5.3] "Best New Product" at the Society for Food Hygiene and
Technology Awards in 2008
and winning their category in both Guardian Global Cleantech 100 awards
(2009 and 2010)
[5.4] Business Operations Manager, Exosect
[5.8] Baby biotech stops bugs munching by Catherine Wheatley, The
Sunday Times Published: 27 November 2011
[5.10] Higgs, S. & Bridal, J.( 2011) Moths, Exosex and Floor
Voids at Hampton Court Palace Lauder, D. (2011) The Exosex clothes moth
system and English Heritage Both in Integrated Pest Management for
Collections: Proceedings of 2011: A Pest Odyssey, 10 Years Later. Eds P.
Winsor, D. Pinniger, L. Bacon,B. Child, K. Harris, D. Lauder, J. Phippard
& A. Xavier-Rowe.Swindon, UK: English Heritage, pp. 61-5.