Before the coronavirus took over all news cycles in March, the world worried about another fast-spreading plague: bed bugs.
Paris was so infested with them by the government started an extermination campaign, complete with an emergency number. The flat, apple-seed-sized beetles that come out at night to feed on the blood of sleeping people are thrive in New YorkComplaints about the infestation are also growing so rapidly that the city has had to put restrictions on the disposal of old mattresses in order to contain their spread.
Pest control experts estimate that bed bug infestations worldwide increased by more than 4,500% in the first few years of this century (no, that’s not a typo). This is partly due to the increased prevalence of travel, but also due to bed bugs becoming resistant to pesticides.
No good news.
But AI can potentially come to the rescue. At least that is what Cambridge-based startup Spotta claims. The company, which has just raised $ 1.18 million in seed capital from Cambridge Angels, Angel CoFund, and US VC REMUS, has developed image recognition traps that allow hotels and homeowners to spot defects early before the infestation gets out of hand .
“The biggest challenge for hotels is to find them in front of the guests. Hotels may ask their cleaners to look for signs, but someone cleaning a room typically spends only 15 minutes in it while a guest spends nine hours, ”said Robert Fryers, Spotta’s co-founder and CEO.
Typically, a hotel will only catch a third of bed bug infestations in front of guests, so guests can spot the other two-thirds, Fryers says. And any guest-pest interaction generally leads to bad reviews, refunds, and even litigation.
Because of this, hotels have taken an interest in the Spotta traps, which in an attempt last February enabled the hotel to catch 95% of the infestation from their guests. Spotta estimates the average 200-room hotel could save up to £ 67,200 a year.
In one trial, the bed pod allowed hotels to catch 95% of bed bug infestations from guests.
The technology is a mixture of computer vision, which the insect can precisely identify, and an Internet of Things connection, which can send an alert if there is a problem. Neither of these technologies is unique to Spotta, but the clever trick was to get image recognition working on remote devices without using too much power, and at a price that means you can use it on a large scale. Spotta does this through its proprietary software that divides the image recognition between the bug-catching box and a central server.
The bug detection service costs around £ 60 per room per year, and Spotta has two hotel chains and several independent hotels as clients (none of which are willing to be named in an article about bed bugs). According to Fryers, discussions are currently underway with two well-known hotel chains.
Covid-related travel restrictions have, of course, helped slow the spread of bed bugs – as well as slowing hotels’ willingness to spend.
“Investors asked me this question a lot this time around,” says Fryers.
Spotta co-founders Neil D’Souza-Mathew and Robert Fryers
But not only does the bed bug problem not go away anytime soon (the bugs can lie in wait for a year without feeding), Spotta sees many markets that go beyond bed bugs. According to Fryers, insect pests cause $ 320 billion in damage every year, especially in industries like agriculture (10-15% of crops never make it off the farm because of this), forestry, and infrastructure (think termites).
Agribusinesses looking for ways to make pest control more efficient already have some interest, and part of the new round of funding is being used to explore these markets.