Kaira Wagoner & Phoebe Snyder, Scientist Entrepreneurs
Two UNCG scientists are looking to make a business out of healthy honey bees.
Kaira Wagoner and Phoebe Snyder’s affinity for bees, a decade of research, government patents, and more than $300K in grants has led to a new company and product aimed at raising healthier bees.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro alums’ launched Optera to sell Kaira’s UBeeO, a pheromone-based tool used to identify bees that have a better natural ability to fend off pests and disease. The cofounders say they already have a list of customers ready to purchase the product as soon as they begin sales next year.
“We’ve tried to involve beekeepers as much as possible throughout each stage of this process. When we do go to market and launch officially, it will really be a product for beekeepers by beekeepers,” Kaira says.
Both women grew up with a love of the outdoors.
“I always love nature and being outside,” says Kaira, who grew up in Charlotte. “I’ve been a biologist at heart since I was a kid.”
Phoebe was raised on a farm in western Maryland. She and her mother sold items on eBay for extra income. Phoebe says that is how she first learned about running a business. It was also her “unorthodox” introduction to insects, she says. Phoebe and her mother would forage for praying mantis egg sacs to sell.
“It’s mostly for organic gardening. We would ship hundreds of eggs sacks at a time and people would deploy them in their gardens,” she says.
Kaira studied biology and health science at Guilford College. After undergrad she worked overseas with Potter’s for Peace, coordinating projects to create ceramic water filters that make river water safe to drink. The death of her Potters for Peace mentor from Malaria inspired her to go back to school to study malaria-carrying mosquitos.
Eventually she turned her focus to bees. “I really liked entomology, but I wanted to switch to a beneficial insect,” Kaira says.
She went on to earn a Master’s in Biology and a PhD in Environmental Health Science from UNCG, where she continued to work as a Postdoctoral fellow and then Research Scientist.
Phoebe attended undergrad at Stevenson University in Maryland, where her interest in bees was stoked by a mentor who introduced Phoebe to her bee hive. On her first trip to see the colony, her mentor said, “‘Look, it’s a bee being born.’ I can still point back to that in my head. It was just really powerful. She was really motivating and inspiring. It lead me on a really great adventure.”
“I didn’t expect to like bees. It was all kind of a cosmic event, it felt like, in my life.” Phoebe got her Master’s in biology at UNCG. “It’s been all bees at the time since college,” she says.
Both said it’s easy to get hooked on raising bees. It’s meditative to visit a colony, Kaira says. “People that don’t know bees or haven’t worked with them think of it as something scary. But I think most beekeepers find this real sense of joy and peace going into their colonies.”
Bees are critical for crop pollination. An estimated 75 percent of fruits, nuts, and vegetables grow in the United States are pollinated by bees, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Honeybees have a variety of health challenges, from pests to diseases. “In the U.S., we are seeing colony death rates as high as 40 percent a year. Honeybees are struggling,” Kaira says.
Bees naturally root out disease in the brood, where all the “baby bees” develop from larvae to adults. They eliminate sick bees to ensure the larger health of the colony. For her PhD, Kaira studied the communication system that enables this hygienic behavior.
“We knew that the adult bees were detecting some kind of chemical signal in the cell but we didn’t know what the signal was,” Kaira says.
With four and half years of research at UNCG, Kaira was able to identify the chemical compounds that signal a bee was distressed. By spraying a synthetic version of the compound on a brood cell, she could test which colonies had the most hygienic behavior. Those with the most hygienic behavior are better at naturally keeping their colony disease and mite-free, enabling beekeepers to use less pesticide on their hives and breed more naturally resilient bees.
The work resulted in three U.S. patents.
“That turned out to be a super exciting point in the research and we didn’t want to just stop when we had this brand new super exciting finding,” Kaira says.
Phoebe and Kaira met while working in a biology lab at UNCG. In early 2020, they were having a taco lunch on Tate Street with their advisor when the concept of turning the research into a business came up. Kaira had a product idea, but didn’t know if she was ready to start a business. Phoebe already had entrepreneurial experience.
Kaira and Phoebe joined LaunchUNCG and NC A&T’s iCORPS program, which connected them to a national program that trains researchers how to bring their cutting-edge technology to market.
They used a $50K iCORPS grant to do beekeeping industry research and identify different customers for the product, UBeeO. They conducted 150 formal interviews and informally talked to another 200 beekeepers from around the world.
Last year, Optera received $355,000 in research and development grants from the National Science Foundation and the NC Department of Commerce to continue to develop the product. They have been immersed in studying how the technology works and when it should be used, and developing an applicator to deliver the product to the hive.
Phoebe designed her own concept for a trigger-style applicator and shared it with a Nova Scotian beekeeper who happened to have a background in dairy robotics. He pointed out it looked remarkably like a cattle vaccinator gun.
Optera started accepting pre-orders in October 2022. The team is still working on logistics and other issues to get the product to market, likely in 2024. They get daily emails from beekeepers who are interested.
Phoebe and Kaira said they are grateful to UNCG, which has agreed to let them license the patents for the product, and to the grant funders and local beekeepers for supporting the project.
“This would not have been possible without these resources,” Kaira says. “But given the support we have received, we think big things are coming.”