InsectSense works with bees to provide solutions with impact

Published on
January 28, 2022

InsectSense is a technological start-up on Wageningen Campus that explores the potential of insects and carries out research inspired by nature and insects in particular. InsectSense uses the solutions nature has found to develop new innovative technologies and devices. This is called Biomimetics or Biomimicry. Aria Samimi, co-founder and CEO of InsectSense, is excited about their activities: “Bees have such a wonderful sense of smell and a specific way of communicating with each other. We use these possibilities of insect behaviour and its underlying molecular biology to provide relevant solutions with impact.”

What is the core business of InsectSense?

Did you know that insects are animals that have been around on our planet for a long time, longer than mammals? And we can learn a lot from them. Insects can be a role model for building new innovations and obtaining knowledge to solve a variety of problems. We use their highly accurate ability to smell for disease diagnostics and detection of volatile organic compounds in the environment, food and security systems, as well as in the fields of Research & Development.

How did you start the company?

I was originally a mining engineer and studied Mining Engineering and Geology in Iran. There I followed a BSc course in Biochemistry and learned that wild plants could be indicators for minerals in the area. The idea was to test wild plants to find the minerals. As a nature lover I found this very interesting. After my first day of this course I met a friend, who was studying agriculture, reading a book with a bee on a flower on the cover. I was struck by the idea that the honey in wild plants could be an indicator for minerals. I started my activities by analysing honey for mineral exploration. Over time I learned more about bees and their communication capabilities. I then specialised in bees and their ability to smell and to communicate with each other. I thought that maybe we could train bees to find minerals. I worked on bee behaviour and their ability to smell odours or compounds in different countries such as Germany, Croatia, Sweden and France. In Croatia I discovered that you can train bees to smell TNT to detect land mines.

In 2019 the Netherlands was the fourth most innovative country in the world and I thought Wageningen would be a wonderful place to start a science-based business based on nature. When the pandemic started, I contacted Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) to perform an experiment to train bees to smell sick animals. Wim van der Poel was enthusiastic and it was in fact found that it is possible to use bees to differentiate between healthy and sick samples of SARS-CoV-2 infected minks.

The big question

How to commercialise this technology and to create impact that could be beneficial for the world? That was the big question. To make this technology available to low-income countries too, we started InsectSense in August 2020 and worked on a simple device to train bees to detect volatile organic compounds. In this way we developed the prototype of our first biosensor.

And now we are a young company with co-workers working in many different of disciplines. We are a team of enthusiastic, ambitious and impact-oriented  designers and industrial designers, engineers, biotechnical researchers, artificial intelligence researchers,  biologists and molecular biologists, entomologists and entrepreneurs. We don’t have much capital, so many of them work part-time or are interns. Some of us are partners.

"You can train bees to detect many different volatile organic compounds within a few minutes."

Can you tell us about the products InsectSense is working on?

We are building technologies by mimicking insects, one of which is BeeSense. Our BeeSense biosensor is a device for rapid detection of volatile organic compounds. Bees can be trained to differentiate volatile organic compounds within a few minutes to a few hours. BeeSense is ideal for the diagnosis of novel diseases (such as COVID-19). This biosensor can differentiate between asymptomatic and symptomatic cases among healthy people within a few seconds. It is a cost-effective solution that makes disease diagnosis affordable.

With BeeSense we were runner-up in the Dutch 4TU Impact Challenge at Slush Festival in Helsinki, Finland on 30 November 2021. There we had the opportunity to meet several investors. With our BeeSense technology we were also winner of the Topsector Horticultural Innovation prize 2021. More research is required to make this biosensor suitable for early detection of pre and post-harvest diseases in collaboration with scientists from WUR.

Second innovation

Our second innovation is LumiNose, a device with a biochip. We are using micro-array chip technology that integrates the ability of Insect Odour Receptors to detect volatile organic compounds from samples. LumiNose integrates machine learning in its analysis to determine the fingerprint of the volatile compounds from a complex mixture of samples. Pattern recognition technology detects the different compounds and makes it possible to diagnose novel diseases (such as COVID-19) accurately and precisely. We are developing LumiNose together with PSG’s BioSciences group.

"We want to develop cost-effective solutions that makes disease diagnosis available especially for low-income countries."

How do you cooperate with WUR and other companies on campus?

As I said before, we worked with WBVR on COVID-19 and together with Wim van der Poel I travelled to Kenya with an invite from UNESCO to look at the possibility of using our BeeSense innovation in developing countries. We worked with WBVR during the experiment in COVID-19 in their highly secure labs in Lelystad.

We collaborate with PSG’s BioScience group in our work to develop our biochip in LumiNose and we also cooperate with PSG’sEntomology group. Their researcher gives us scientific support and feedback on working with bees.
So we benefit in many ways from the knowledge on Wageningen Campus. Wageningen is a perfect place for pioneers in research related to nature, insects and other life science topics.

Both for us and for WUR impact is important. For this reason, we consult the departments of Corporate Value Creation (CVC) and of Intellectual Property (IP). They care about impact; for them impact is valuable, and they help us to work in an appropriate manner within our sector.

"You have to think big to grow big, but the first steps must be small and steady!"

Are there things you miss on campus?

In the field of research I don’t miss anything. As a start-up we don’t have much budget. So, it would be great if WUR could provide start-ups like us with multifunctional lab facilities such as a plug-and-play lab. Start-ups could then benefit from lab equipment and facilities easily.

We also miss in-person interaction and meetings with other researchers on campus during the pandemic. We’ve got used to online contacts, but in face-to-face meetings there’s probably scope for a lot more comprehension, better understanding and cooperation.

How do you see the future of your company and on campus?

In five years we hope to be the pioneer in insect-inspired technologies. We hope to develop more technology based on biomimicry with more impact. I think it would be wise and useful to keep our headquarters in Wageningen. But in a few years, we hope to expand and we will probably start other activities with other universities in other countries. I’ve learned to think big and then to take the first steps small and steady. But to grow big, you first need a good product.