Wetenschap - 27 april 2012

On the scent of international market

The Pherobank, which develops aromatic substances to catch harmful insects, has broken off from Plant Research International. Researchers Frans Griepink and Henk Swarts, its present directors, want to provide a faster service to customers and are eyeing new markets.

Pherobank is all about pheromones - substances used to lure insects. Frans Griepink, organic chemist and Pherobank co-founder, has been making these lures since 1996, and his colleague Henk Swarts, since 1999. Recently, they have become directors of Pherobank BV, a spin-off company of DLO. They now have new name cards bearing the company's name.
It's about time to become independent, says Griepink. 'Our hands were tied in many ways within Wageningen UR. Before we could attend to a customer, we had to go hunting for signatures. We couldn't hire temporary staff fast enough to cater to extra jobs. We had to submit a project proposal each time we wanted to develop a new product. It was just too bureaucratic. Furthermore, we couldn't invest the money earned in these years as intended.' The decision to privatize Pherobank was reached after amiable discussions with the management of the Plant Sciences Group.
The Pherobank has in the past developed lures for as many as 200 insect species. These are dispatched in dispensers which release the aromas slowly. Besides product despatch, the company can also be employed to catch the harmful insects. This takes place especially when an entire chain of moths are involved, such as the tomato leafminer, which came over to the Netherlands from Latin America via Spain, and which posed a serious challenge to tomato farmers for many years. Thanks to Pherobank, a lure has been found for this moth.
Griepink and Swarts provide their services worldwide. 'We are good in difficult pheromones and have very few competitors in this area. The combination of organic chemistry and entomology is pretty unique in the world.'
The treasure house of the Pherobank consists of about 500 reference substances - aroma substances in their pure form. The lure substance is a blend of fatty acid bonds which attract harmful insects only if the proportions of ingredients are exactly right.
However, the lure substances may not be used as primary agents to combat insect plagues in Europe. Like insecticides, they have to undergo long and costly approval procedures. This becomes unprofitable as pheromones are used for specific purposes, limiting the size of their potential market. As such, pheromones are mainly used in Europe for monitoring purposes: a catch of several moths can indicate an approaching plague which can be quickly dealt with by using other remedies.  Such an aroma trap can also be used to find out if harmful insects are left behind in a greenhouse or an orchard after the use of insecticides.
'Europe falls behind in the application of pheromones as a crop protection agent,' thinks Griepink. Outside Europe - such as in the US, Chile and Africa, pheromone lures are used to a greater extent to control plagues.
To help Pherobank to become independent, the StartLife Foundation of Wageningen UR has provided valuable advice and a loan. There is also a good arrangement for Pherobank to take over expensive analysis equipment. It will remain in Radix for the time being, but will be moving in due course to a cheaper and bigger premise.

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