Oct 19, 2020
By Julie Wolf
Diptera.ai: Fighting Mosquitoes with Mosquitoes

Diptera.ai combines computer vision and deep biological knowledge to fight mosquitoes and their diseases. We spoke with CEO Vic Levitin about Diptera.ai’s solution to the mosquito problem.

Watch and read an abbreviated version of the conversation below.

What is the mosquito problem?

Mosquitoes are the most dangerous animal alive: they kill nearly a million humans every year and infect 700 million more with diseases like Zika virus, malaria, and yellow fever.

The mosquito problem is a spreading one. Thanks to climate change, the mosquito-friendly habitat is expanding. By the year 2050, half the world’s population will be living among mosquito infected areas. 

There are no vaccines or treatments to most of the mosquito-borne diseases, and the solutions to control mosquito populations depend mostly on pesticides; this uses chemicals that are toxic to both humans and the environment. These are quickly losing their productivity because the mosquitoes are becoming resistant to these insecticides.

Why has Sterile Insect Technique failed to address the mosquito problem?

Sterile Insect Technique, or SIT, relies on one beautiful fact: male mosquitoes mate repeatedly while females mate only once. Based on this concept, when you release large quantities of sterile male mosquitoes, they mate with wild females and there are no progeny, diluting and depleting the population.

This is the core of the technique, but it isn’t new; SIT has been around since the mid-1940s. It’s been widely used for other types of insects, but there’s been a major bottle neck with implementing this technique for mosquitoes: you want to be very precise to release only sterilized male mosquitoes. Only the female mosquitoes take bloodmeals; if you release any females, they can still bite and transmit disease. You want to be as close to 100% accuracy in releasing only males.

Another problem is the sex sorting of mosquitoes at the adult stage, which is what is currently done. Adults are fragile and have a short lifespan, so they are difficult to ship. You need a facility to grow, set, and ship, which is why this technique, although very promising, is not being widely implemented. It’s just super expensive at the moment.

What has Diptera.ai innovated in mosquito sex-sorting technologies?

We developed a technology to sex sort mosquitoes much earlier, in the larval stage. At this stage, the mosquitoes are much more robust, and they have about 2 weeks prior to becoming adults. That’s 2 weeks that we could ship all over the world.

Sorting at the larval stage allows us to introduce a new business model to the industry, where instead of having to build your own facility, we can ship sterile mosquitoes to you and use sterile insect technique as a service.

How does your team have the unique ability to build this technology?

I’m fortunate to be joined by 2 co-founders that are exponentially smarter than I am. Each of them brings along more than 15 years of experience in their own fields. 

Elly Ordan has been working with insects for his entire adult life, so he really knows his stuff when it comes to insects. He brings a unique knowledge of how to recognize differences between males and females at the larval stage. Ariel Livne is an expert in automation and optics, and he translates Elly’s mind into an artificial intelligence and an automated machine. 

Who will Diptera.ai’s customers be?

The current annual spending on mosquito control in the US is $2.5 billion dollars. The private market spends $2 billion, and half a billion is spent by mosquito control districts. Because existing solutions are toxic and inefficient, we estimate a $15 billion untapped market in the US alone.

This estimate is based on the fact that out of 80 million households with private lawns, half of them already have a mosquito problem, and only about 2 million households are buying mosquito control. The rest have basically given up on their outdoors during the mosquito season.

We offer an effective and sustainable solution at a comparable price. Our strategy is to start from the mosquito control districts, as they have both successful experience with SIT for agricultural pests and immediately available budgets. To that end, we have an LOI from a major US mosquito control district. We’ll then expand to the residential market, where we have signed an LOI with one of the largest mosquito control companies in the US.

How do you imagine Diptera.ai will grow as the SIT technologies matures?

At this point, we’ve spoken to dozens of experts from all around the world: from the U.S., from Asia, South America, South Africa and the Gulf Coast. For us, it’s clear that SIT will be implemented widely and will be a default mosquito control solution. It’s important to say it won’t be a silver bullet: you still need other methods as well, practices like eliminating still water, and educate the community not to leave open water containers, and so on. But it’s really not a question of if SIT will be implemented, it’s a matter of when and who will do it. We believe we hold the key to unlock scale for the sterile insect technique and essentially create this industry.

See Diptera.AI pitch at IndieBio New York’s Demo Day here.