In general, I do my best to practice ahimsa, or non-harming. I respect all living beings. But if I could eradicate one species from the face of the Earth, it would be the mosquito.
Growing up in Hawaii, I tried everything to avoid visits from the vicious little creatures, which always left me with a parting gift of massive, pussy, itchy lumps all over my body. I took Vitamin B supplements, burned citronella candles and coated myself in the spray, bought this little gizmo that claimed to emit a high-frequency sound that drove mosquitos away and so on. Nothing worked. To this day, one mosquito in a crowd of 100 people will choose to feast upon my unsurpassably scrumptious blood. In the end, I had to accept my fate: cover myself in poisonous DEET or get bit.
So you can imagine the ecstatic reaction I had when Grey Frandsen contacted me about a new product called KITE. His company, ieCrowd, has spent three years with grants developing the world's first totally non-toxic and completely effective mosquito "invisibility cloak." KITE works by blocking the mini-vampires' ability to detect CO2 (which is how mosquitos find and bite humans), using proprietary combinations of flavors and fragrances approved by the FDA for human consumption.
ieCrowd initially acquired its mosquito-blocking technology from UC Riverside, where it had received support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the NIH. Next, ieCrowd built a new company and an 11,000 square foot mosquito behavior research lab, or as Grey called it, "a torture chamber for mosquitos." (Never before did I imagine myself leaping for joy at the words "torture chamber.") Scientists built actual model African huts in these labs to test the impact of wind, humidity and many other factors on KITE's ability to protect humans from getting bitten. Once the technology had proved effective, ieCrowd's company received another grant from the NIH and entered into collaborative testing agreements with the USDA and Walter Reed's Army Institute for Research.
KITE has the potential to greatly accelerate and contribute to the fight to eradicate mosquito-born diseases like malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. It's really working," Grey explained. "For me, it's aspirational and inspirational. It's not just about avoiding mosquito bites; it's about empowering individuals around the world to live free from the fear of diseases.
Perhaps the best part about KITE, from a consumer perspective, is that its super easy to use. You simply place a colorful sticker on your clothes, and the device blinds mosquitos to your very existence for the next 48 hours.
"Most mosquito products today are either cumbersome, like bed netting that only protects people at night, or toxic for humans, groundwater and plants, often containing DEET or other harmful compounds," Grey said. "We're also well aware of plenty of products that claim to repel mosquitoes with 'all-natural' labels. Problem is, we've tested them. Most work, at best, only 20-30 percent of the time." KITE is the ultimate solution.
In cooperation with the NGO Pilgrim Africa, ieCrowd is launching a crowdfunding campaign on Tuesday, July 16 to bring KITE to Uganda, a hotbed of malaria and other mosquito-born diseases. The campaign will raise funds for final assembly and manufacturing, then send batches of KITE to the East African nation for real field-testing under the toughest conditions the product could face. Grey and team took this strategy to ensure that KITE works for everyone, especially those who need it the most. Not to mention that Grey has contracted malaria -- in Uganda.
While discussing KITE with Grey, I became intrigued by ieCrowd's business model. The "ie" stands for Innovation Economy. ieCrowd is a platform for transforming innovations, largely from well-funded research projects, into real-world, scalable and market-driven solutions to global challenges. Universities gain access to billions of dollars in R&D funding, yet only a small fraction of what they create is ever commercialized for public good.
"We're the first company of our kind," said Grey. "We are laser-focused on bridging the gap that currently exists between America's incredible innovation stock -- the great stuff our innovators are producing on campuses and in labs -- and actually transforming those innovations into companies capable of solving global challenges," Grey explained.
Unlike venture capital firms, ieCrowd does more than just invest in the companies it helps to found. ieCrowd actually operates and majority-owns each company it forms, enabling a unique level of stability, control and efficiencies. "ieCrowd provides each entity with all the typical infrastructure that a growth company needs so that they can stay focused on the product and customer," Grey said.
ieCrowd looks for innovations everywhere, and then marries them with experienced entrepreneurs with the know-how to build strong, smart and purpose-driven companies. "By doing this, we believe, ieCrowd enables everyone the opportunity to own or participate in a piece of our country's next generation of innovation and entrepreneurship -- something that just isn't available in the current VC system or for start-ups setting out into the great wilderness alone," Grey continued. "I've been there. I know."
Grey's focus has always been on building "great" organizations, he says with a humble chuckle. He fondly recalls his first attempt at "starting something." At age four, he organized his neighborhood in Seattle to mine a hole in his father's backyard. With an MA in international relations and economics with attention on Africa from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and professional experience with the U.S. State Department and U.S. Senate as well as several entrepreneurial endeavors, Grey seems at one with his leadership role at ieCrowd.
In addition, Grey knows global challenges. He's spent his adult life working on tough issues, including those facing the African continent, where he has contracted malaria twice. "The fight against mosquitoes, with KITE, is very, very personal," he laughed.
At 6'6", Grey's 34 years may seem more like 44, and his staff say he is a hard driver with just enough humor. He definitely seems like he's a man on a mission. He said:
Our country has an incredible inventory of innovations that never make it to market. There is a gigantic gap that we all know exists between the lab and products that add value to the marketplace -- and we're focused on eliminating that gap for technologies that can have big impact globally and save lives.
ieCrowd has the potential to make a huge impact in all of our lives with KITE and many other products in the pipeline, which Grey was kind enough to share with me. "We're proud that our work at ieCrowd delivers personal, social and economic benefit when successfully commercialized. KITE's launch today represents just that. This is our new model of innovative entrepreneurship, and we're all in," finished Grey.
Photo credit: Michael J. Elderman