Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.A female blue crab scuttling along the bottom of Carolina coastal waters only has one thing on its little crabby mind for about eight weeks every summer: sex.
That means the female blue crabs that end up on our dinner plates as soft shell crabs give commercial fishermen – who make up to $100,000 a season on them – only one choice of baits.
“The female crabs don’t think about food,” says James Reho, Ph.D, who teaches chemistry at East Carolina University. “They don’t think about anything except the male Jimmy crab.” So, before they commercial fishermen catch the tasty females, they have to catch male Jimmy crabs to use as bait.
This, Reho explains, causes some problems. First, they have to compete with all the other commercial fishermen for them “and they have to spend a lot of time catching them.” Then, about 20 percent of the males simply won’t attract females, so they know that much of their male catch is worthless in any event.
Come hither, crab
To solve the problem, Reho and his partner, a graduate student at ECU, decided the male crabs must emit a pheromone that could attract females over long distances. Since Reho is not in a tenure-track position, the pair begged and borrowed equipment and developed the project at their own expense, including field studies of live crabs and laboratory analysis work.
Through chemical analysis of Jimmy crab tissue samples and other studies, the pair “came up with something that as far as female crabs are concerned, is the sexiest thing out there,” Reho says.
Their artificial baits, which Reho says they can price at slightly less cost than live Jimmy crabs, “are more of a Casanova than the real male crab, which are sometimes called Casanovas.” One in five Jimmy crabs does nothing, while the artificial baits are a “shure” thing.
The two researchers did successful field studies of their artificial baits last summer and intend to repeat them this summer. Since the commercial crabbers risk their entire year’s income on a summer season, the researchers want to ensure the product is dependable, Reho says.
Then they’ll look for funding from investors familiar with commercial crabbing. Reho says their only real competition is from the Jimmy crab himself.
The market could be substantial. In just North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay, Reho says, about 600 soft shell crabbers place ten million pots during the eight week season. That means they need ten million baits at $1.75 each. Reho says since their product is environmentally friendly and situations in other blue crab waters off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia and elsewhere are similar, they expect to expand into those markets eventually.
Since their price undersells the live male bait, “We’re not even asking fishermen to pay a premium for the savings in time and gain in efficiency,” Reho says.
The company’s business plan went over well at UNC-Charlotte’s Five Venture’s business plan competition this year, at which it won $5,000 and professional services.
“We think we’ll be able to make great use of the professional services,” Reho says. “More so than some competitors who already had long-standing relationships with accountants and lawyers. Even for just the basic incorporation, this came at the most opportune time for us.”
In addition to the cash and services, Reho says winning makes him and his partner feel as if “the whole UNC system is rooting for us.”
Reho says ShureShedders, which originally spelled its name “ShoreShedders,” plans to open an office in East Carolina near ECU. He says the company is within a year of sale and already has a second product in the works with even more potential than the Casanova baits.
He says the company will probably build a ten person work force within a year, starting with five or six people.
Randall Gregg, who has been covering biotech and other Research Triangle subjects on RTP.TV for two years now, says he plans to introduce something unique online: a Biotech channel.
“I’ve been doing local stories for some time,” Gregg tells LTW. “But we’re going to cover national stories too. Guest lecturers and biotech leaders who come to town. It will be the first and only biotech channel.”
Gregg says that while he had some difficulty lining up support for the local biotech coverage, the national channel idea drew immediate support from I.B.M. and ZenBio, who are initial sponsors.
“It will be very technical, more for the biotech professional than for the lay person,” Gregg says. One of the areas he says he wants to cover is ground-breaking work going on at local universities in everything from stem cell studies to carbon nanotubes for use in the body.
RTP TV: www.rtptv.com