Science meets nature: How this entrepreneur from NunatuKavut developed her unique anti-tick spray
Lisa Learning, an entrepreneur in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, can thank her sons and her father for the idea behind Atlantick Repellent Products.
In 2016, Learning noticed that her 9- and 11-year-old sons’ knees and ankles had suddenly swelled up. Her older son also had pain in his hip that was so severe he couldn’t walk. The worried mother took her boys to a doctor. It was determined that they had been bitten by ticks, and they were diagnosed with Lyme arthritis. After they were put on antibiotics, the boys recovered.
That incident, however, was nerve-racking for Learning, who didn’t want others to go through the same thing. Learning began researching ticks and their ability to spread Lyme disease.
How Lyme disease spreads
Learning found out about how Lyme disease can be spread by ticks, which are external parasites about the size of an apple seed.
“Once ticks get on you, you rarely feel them,” she explains.
“Before they bite, they inject a sort of anesthetic, so you can’t feel them biting. Then they secrete a sort of cement-like liquid that hardens. When you try to pull a tick off, your skin comes off as well. But most people never feel that they’ve been bitten—until later, if they get Lyme disease,” she says.
“Lyme disease can affect people in so many different ways. You may not feel anything at all, then months later your knees or ankles might swell. There may be flu-like symptoms, or it can even go to your heart or your brain. In rare cases, it can be fatal.”
Looking for a safe and natural solution
As she found out more about Lyme disease, Learning was inspired to develop a safe bug and tick killer—one that did not include the use of chemicals like DEET.
“I wanted to send my boys outdoors, but I wasn’t comfortable putting DEET on them because of the potential negative effects from DEET. This is the reason I started my business.”
Learning is a member of the NunatuKavut Community Council, the representative governing body for Inuit primarily from south and central Labrador. The lessons she learned in her childhood in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, have had a huge impact throughout her life. “[My father] taught us how to take the resources around us and manipulate them for what we needed. Whatever the situation was, he always found some way to look at the nature around us and then use it as a tool.”
“When my boys got sick, I thought, ‘let’s find a way the Earth can create a solution for this.’ That’s exactly what the spray is all about—using our natural resources to protect ourselves.”
While browsing at farmers’ markets, she found other people had already created tick sprays by using essential oils from plants. However, when she asked how effective they were, she was just told they worked on family and friends.
Looking closer, she noticed that each of the sprays had different ingredients. How could she know which one was the most effective?
Learning started doing research by reading published, scientific, peer-reviewed papers. She learned that there were no essential-oil-based tick sprays registered with Health Canada.
“This was huge. It meant all the anti-tick, plant-based sprays only had anecdotal evidence—nothing scientific—behind the claims. Then I thought: ‘I’m going to create a spray that is scientifically tested and proven, and I’m going to get it registered with Health Canada, so that other moms will have comfort in knowing that it’s not anecdotal, but actually proven and there’s science behind it.’”
Interested in using natural resources but still devoted to coming up with scientific evidence, Learning contacted Dr. Nicoletta Faraone, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. “I had three original formulas created, and Dr. Faraone tested them to see how effective they were against ticks. One of the three formulas came out on top, but it was only 80-85% effective against repelling ticks,” Learning recalls.
Her new business is underway
The spray was also effective against other insects, so less than a year after her sons were bitten by ticks, Learning had started her business—Atlantick Repellent Products.
She began small, and initially based the company out of her kitchen. She has seen steady growth ever since.
Learning now operates in a 150-square-metre facility that includes a warehouse, assembly line, and offices. There are three full-time partners, and during production each summer, about four people are hired to work on the assembly line.
Her products are sold online as well as through retailers in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and British Columbia.
Learning has a business degree—but she says there were still plenty of things she needed to learn about starting this new business.
“You don’t need a degree in business in order to have a successful company. All you need is the desire to learn and figure things out, and you also need the determination to see it through to the very end. That’s the hardest part,” she says.
Getting her first loan from BDC
Learning reached out to other people in business for help. One of them suggested she contact BDC.
Access to capital is always a challenge for new businesses, and Learning says that’s especially true when one is running a young business without a good debt-to-equity ratio or any of the other financial benchmarks banks use to assess businesses.
“My very first loan was from BDC. They were the only organization willing to look at me and help me out. BDC made it easy,” she says.
New challenges with Health Canada
Although her formula was 80-85% effective against ticks, Learning discovered that in order to be registered by Health Canada as a tick killer, the formula had to be over 95% effective. The new challenge didn’t slow Learning down.
“We went back to the drawing board and enhanced it,” she says.
Learning is used to facing—and overcoming—problems.
“A lot of times when people hit a roadblock, they think, ‘I just can’t do this.’ But yes, you can. There’s always a way around everything. It’s never going to be obvious. You just have to figure out how to get through it and keep going, then you’ll be successful.”
That was three years ago. Research and testing continue.
“The enhanced formula is now 98% effective, and it lasts longer,” Learning says proudly. “We’re now in the process of putting in the final application with Health Canada.”
That’s why the current product, with the original formula, is called an outdoor spray, rather than a tick formula.
“Five years down the road, we want to be the go-to brand for all things ticks.”