[Annual Cockroach Issue] In the Business of Bettering Baits

Features - Annual Cockroach Control Issue

Dangsheng Liang and his team at Apex Bait Technologies have found a niche — and are filling an important industry void — with their work to improve bait formulations.

July 30, 2014

Despite the collective efforts of academia and industry, cockroaches manage to stay ahead of the curve. It’s a lesson that pest management professionals have learned over and over, and it’s the reason why there will always be a need not only for new technologies, but for existing technologies to be improved upon. Enter Dangsheng Liang and his team at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Apex Bait Technologies, a company whose work with baits — most notably cockroach baits, but other insect baits as well — is instrumental in providing pest management professionals with the most effective products possible. Apex’s focus is on the development of matrixes that result in both better bait acceptance and consumption.

How has Apex been able to carve out this market niche? Chemical manufacturers have developed many impressive active ingredients, each with their own unique characteristics, but a critical part of the process is formulating these products for maximum insect acceptance and consumption. Manufacturers will contract with Apex to develop matrixes. Many of these manufacturers don’t have R&D devoted to this process, and others that do may still contract with Apex. A good example of the latter is DuPont Professional Products (which was purchased by Syngenta in 2012), whose R&D formulated its indoxacarb-based cockroach baits, but also contracted with Apex; they ultimately chose the Apex technology.

How does Apex make baits better? Liang explains it is a three-step process that involves a deep understanding of: 1) target insects; 2) bait matrix; and 3) active ingredients and their interactions. “We first try to get to know the target insects really well, particularly their behavior, ecology, habitats, food preference, attractants, and even physiology. Their ecology and behavior provides clues on whether they use attractants and what kinds,” Liang said. “From there, we develop a special bait matrix and incorporate the right active ingredient into it. Usually, many iterations of this process will occur before a good bait can be developed. Luck is sometimes involved when discovering a great bait. Often, we spend lots of time solving most of the problems but one issue can kill the whole thing. A very good efficacy bioassay is also critical for bait development.”

The future of insect baiting

Where does Dangsheng Liang see insect baiting heading in the future, both in terms of new products being introduced and other voids baiting might be able to fill?

Liang explains, “I see insect baiting as an interruptive technology for use in the pest control industry, not just for urban pests, but for agricultural, veterinary and many other pests as well. It will not be suitable for all pests but it will be for a great number of them. Baiting is the perfect IPM tool. It significantly reduces the amount of insecticide used. It reduces the degree and/or speed of insecticide resistance development. It can be made selective to only affect the target pests, thus avoiding hurting non-target insects, and making it a very ecological solution for pest problems. It is also safer for applicators and people. Most importantly, it is also the most efficacious method against many pests. I can only see an increasing usage of baits in the foreseeable future. ”

As with any type of research, the “devil is in the details.” For Liang and his team it’s a commitment to a hypothesis-driven research approach, according to North Carolina State University researcher Dr. Coby Schal, who Liang studied under at Rutgers University. Schal said that a lot of time industry will take a “shotgun approach” to research, but Liang’s approach is to “take a whole range of complex products and bioassay them and behavioral assay them, then take the best of these products and break down the components to see what it is the cockroach likes about that product. That is a hypothesis-driven, alliterative approach.”

Clay Scherer, regional technical manager, Southeast U.S., Syngenta PPM, has worked with Liang throughout the years. Scherer says Liang’s diverse scientific background and training give him a depth of knowledge in basic science and insect communication and attraction that others researchers lack. “Making a bait is really very complicated because not only are you putting chemistry into it that might not be very tasty to an insect, but you are adding preservatives,” he said. “Dangsheng has expertise in working with attractants and preservatives and he knows how to put them together in a formulation just right. That expertise is very, very specialized.”

Scherer describes Liang as “a quiet, behind-the-scenes guy” who not many people know, but someone who has “had more of an impact on cockroach control and ant control technology than just about anybody.”

From Scientist to Entrepreneur.

The results derived from Liang’s scientific research practices and protocols are what is valued by manufacturers, but being able to provide these services is only part of the reason Apex Bait Technologies has succeeded as a company. Like other classic entrepreneurs Liang, age 50, is a risk-taker who had a vision that he pursued with a passion.

Whether he knew it or not at the time, the seeds for Liang’s vision were sown in Dr. Schal’s lab at Rutgers University in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Originally from China, Liang came to Rutgers in 1986, at age 21, after the Chinese government assigned the bright, young student (who entered college in China at age 15) to the United States (see related story, page 90). Thanks to the advice of a Taiwanese student already at Rutgers, Liang landed at the Rutgers University Department of Entomology and chose Schal as his advisor. In Schal, Liang found not only an advisor and model scientist, but a friend and lifelong mentor, who displayed extreme patience in working with the young Chinese student who stubbornly refused to learn English during his teens.

Giving Back to His Homeland

The Chinese government’s decision to send Dangsheng Liang to the U.S. was instrumental in helping him launch his successful career. Liang, in return, has given back to his homeland.

Liang was one of the key people who organized the OCEA (Overseas Chinese Entomologists Association, www.go-to-ocea.org/home), whose mission includes promoting the science of entomology in China and collaboration of entomologists between China and the rest of the world, particularly the U.S. Liang served as its first president in 1998.

More recently, Liang initiated a collaboration with a company in China. China is currently undergoing the largest urbanization of a population in history. Liang hopes to introduce this group of urban citizens to the urban pest control technologies and practices that Apex and others develop — technologies and practices that are effective, safe, and environmentally sound.

“When I started writing my first publication, my English was so poor that I still cannot imagine how I did it or how we did it,” Liang recalls. “Coby could have written it easily himself. Instead, he would have me write it and then he went over it with corrections on grammar, word choices, sentence structures, as well as content. I would rewrite it while making the same or new mistakes. We repeated this over and over more than a dozen times before finishing it. He could have written a better one himself with one-tenth of his effort but he knew I would not learn much that way.”

The Schal lab also is where Liang gained a great appreciation for cockroaches, particularly these insects’ ability to survive in modern society. “For example, the German cockroach is pretty much like a domesticated animal, relying exclusively on humans for both shelter and food,” Liang said. “With rising living standards, we are increasingly intolerable of them and we try harder to get rid of them with increasingly better weaponry. Yet, cockroaches always come up with ways to survive whatever we throw at them. It makes work challenging and I love working on challenging problems.”

Liang enjoyed his time in the Schal lab so much that he stayed there to pursue his M.S., and Ph.D. degrees as well post-doctoral work.

A Leap of Faith.

Following Rutgers, Liang moved onto industry, working as a research entomologist at the Clorox Company (Bay Area of California) for six years, working on Combat and Maxforce products.

Hired by Ted Shapas, R&D manager, and Dr. Jules Silverman, Liang’s advisor who later left for North Carolina State University, Liang was charged with upstream research on bait technologies such as attractants, feeding stimulants, secondary kill, and bait aversion. Toward the end of Liang’s tenure at Clorox, he became involved in what would become his real talent and enjoyment: working with bait formulations.

In the early 2000s, Clorox sold off its pest control division, leaving Liang with a difficult choice of either moving to another department within Clorox, or launching a start-up business. Wanting to stay in the Bay Area and continue doing something he loved (working with baits) Liang took a leap of faith and, in typical Silicon Valley fashion (e.g., HP, Apple, and Google), launched Apex, from his garage, in 2002. Apex was started as sole-proprietor company before being incorporated in California in 2003.

“I had no clue how it was going to work out when I started. The only things I knew were that I love working on bait formulations and I am good at it,” he said. “The field is very small and you rarely hear about an entomologist doing a start-up, not to mention a technology start-up specialized on urban pests. However, I thought if a better product wins, like in the high-tech world, then I might have a chance to succeed.”

Fortunately for Liang, his wife, Jingrong Han, brought in steady income as an engineer and that supported the family during the early years, while Apex Bait Technologies was not generating much revenue as Liang was focused on developing technologies and contacts while soliciting contract research work.

Liang also said that he has benefitted from being located in proximity to Silicon Valley, where he has learned from successful high-tech, start-up companies. For example, Liang is a part of Inventor’s Alliance and Invent Right, groups that teach inventors how to commercialize their inventions. “That is where I learned a lot of practical know-how on licensing, cold calling, inventing, and patenting,” he said.

A Vision Realized.

After the usual start-up business challenges, Liang’s vision for leading a well-run operation that provides pest control industry chemical manufacturers with a needed service began to take hold.

“When we were finally able to license our bait technologies to two major global chemical companies, we confirmed that great technologies are indeed recognized and sought after,” Liang said.

As with most entrepreneurs finding, training, and retaining employees is a challenge for Liang, especially being located in Silicon Valley, where skilled workers tend to be more interested in working out computer bugs, instead of working with real bugs.

Still, Liang has been able to assemble a team of talented researchers, all of whom take the same hypothesis-driven research approach. This has allowed the company to develop new technologies and to work on more insects and a greater variety of baits. “We are becoming a bait technology powerhouse,” he said.

While working with cockroach baits remains Apex Bait Technologies’ core offering, Liang said he believes the company’s most significant contribution to the industry will be with baits against other insects, where he now devotes much of his efforts. “Baits against other insects are not as advanced (as cockroach baits) because either (1) not as much research has been conducted on them and/or (2) those insects are more difficult to work with. We are dedicated to making those baits better.”


The author is Internet editor and managing editor of PCT and can be contacted at bharbison@giemedia.com.