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Stop Bugging Me

By Michelle Collins |

Rather than face another Northern Ontario summer fighting off mosquitoes and black flies with traditional repellents that reeked and didn't last long enough, Bob Meister and Sara Callaway developed their own bug-proofing. "The first probably 20 or 30 prototypes we gave as gifts and wedding presents," says Meister, who lives in Trout Creek. "In December of 1990, I lost my job, and most of the people we had given the shirts to thought that this was a really wonderful thing because this would allow us to make more bug shirts."

Thanks to that enthusiasm for the product, the Original Bug Shirt Company was born. After selling several hundred shirts in the first year, the pair hasn't looked back. Today they sell their protective clothing all over North America, as well as in Europe and Asia.

Starting a business in the early 1990s recession proved to be one of the major challenges for the fledgling bug-proofing company. Callaway kept her full-time job as a systems analyst so the pair could secure startup bank financing. She has since taken on the administrative duties of the business full time. Meister heads up the marketing and logistics side of things.

Bug facts
The Original Bug Shirt Company also faces the challenge of competing in a market where larger companies have a higher profile and their products are more readily available. "It was kind of difficult to get people to accept the fact that this was an article of clothing that you can wear rather than slathering yourself with all sorts of noxious chemicals. That was probably the biggest hurdle: suddenly there's an alternative to the repellent sprays," says Meister.

In addition to an unpleasant odour, commonly used repellents contain the chemical DEET for efficacy. Repellents in Canada are legally required to provide more than 95 per cent protection for at least 30 minutes per application. The longer the bug spray lasts, the more DEET it contains. Health Canada warns against spraying children under the age of two with any DEET-based repellent.

For people with skin reactions, or for those simply concerned about spraying the chemical on themselves, Meister and Callaway provide the solution. "Before we actually had the shirts for ourselves, we would use DEET-based repellent. DEET is really the one that works as far as repellents go, but it does smell bad. We appeal to people who don't want to worry about doing something to their skin or [don't want to] have to deal with the smell of the stuff," says Meister.

A magnetic magnet
The decision to become one of the first Canadian distributors of the Mosquito Magnet came in a dream to Renee DuBois's father. "He had this dream, actually, that he'd found this product that worked to attract mosquitoes rather than repel them, and poison them that way. He started looking on the Internet, and he came across this product." The dream has paid off so far. DuBois Motor Sport, located in Winnipeg, Man., sold more than 400 units last year and has doubled sales so far this year.

So, just what is the Mosquito Magnet? "It looks like a barbecue and runs on propane," explains DuBois. "It uses the propane to produce carbon dioxide, heat, and moisture. So it's mimicking human breath or a large mammal."

DuBois says what separates the Mosquito Magnet from other products such as bug zappers and citronella candles is that it actually works. "None of those products uses what is needed to actually attract. People have known for a long time that carbon dioxide is what attracts mosquitoes and black flies."

Like Meister and Callaway's bug shirt, the Mosquito Magnet provides an alternative to chemical-based repellents. DuBois says their product is environmentally safe because it doesn't produce any harmful pesticides. "It doesn't kill any good bugs at all. Mosquitoes, black flies, no see 'ums, and sand flies are the only bugs that require blood to reproduce that are attracted to carbon dioxide."

DuBois deals with skeptics by asking people to visit them and see for themselves how well the Mosquito Magnet works. "People are wary at first, because it is a lot of money compared to a bug zapper or something else. But people are willing to spend $100,000 on a cottage, and [then] they can't sit outside."

De-bugging the future
Meister is unsure of where the Original Bug Shirt Company is headed. Allowing the company to evolve out of customer demand has proven to be the key factor for growth and potential. "When you live in a little community out in Northern Ontario, you sometimes don't have this global vision. We really didn't know what the potential was outside of here. It turns out now, most of our business is shipping to the US," he says.

As for the DuBois family business, they are busy handling local and national companies who want to become Mosquito Magnet suppliers. The business has also set its sights on convincing the city of Winnipeg to use the product rather than spraying pesticides.

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