By GREGORY ZELLER //
There’s ingenuity, there’s determination and there’s rock-solid fundamental science. Then there’s Ruchi Shah.
To say the Stony Brook University senior – hurtling toward a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a seat at the Stony Brook School of Medicine already waiting – is ingenious, determined and scientifically solid is a minor understatement, the way calling outer space “big” doesn’t quite do the universe justice.
This is a next-level thinker who, at age 15, was so moved by what she saw during a family trip to India – “impacted,” as she put it, “by the people I saw waiting for treatment from mosquito-transmitted diseases” – that she built a test chamber in her Ronkonkoma garage, nursed mosquito larvae into full-grown insects, formulated various strains of human perspiration and set to figuring out what, precisely, attracted the tiny bloodsuckers to certain people.
Her goal: the world’s greatest mosquito repellent.
The years of sweat equity led to Mosquito Be Gone, an organic repellent that promises to keep critters at bay during your day at the park, but may ultimately redefine healthcare throughout Africa and Asia.
Her little 10th grade “science fair project” at Sachem North High School has already won more acclaim than many lab coats earn in a lifetime. Among them: honors from the American Chemical Society and Intel, plus a $25,000 scholarship from global financiers the AXA Group.
In 2013, she was the youngest speaker at a Stony Brook TED Talk focused on world-changing scientific research, and also presented her organic repellent at the Forbes Women’s Summit.
Last year, Shah took first place – and the $20,000 prize – in the annual Stony Brook business plan competition, which sent her along to a Long Island regional match that she also won (collecting another $15,000) and then to the state tournament, where she finished third in the Biotech category ($1,500).
That AXA scholarship was accompanied by a profile in USA Today, and this year, the science star was a Clinton Global Initiative University delegate, logging a top-10 finish in the program’s fundraising challenge.
HerCampus.com recently ranked Shah, now 21, among its 22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women.
Did we mention she researches cervical cancer in her spare time?
It’s a breathtaking résumé – another understatement – but Shah takes it all in stride, and for now is focused on getting Mosquito Be Gone to market.
By tinkering with the ingredients in her synthetic sweat blends back in her garage and the Sachem school laboratory, she determined that mosquitoes were attracted most by nitrogen-based compounds found in human perspiration – a discovery that’s been subsequently embraced by the global scientific community. From there, Shah was able to test various all-natural repellent formulas, until she found one that neutralized the nitrogen compounds and sent her test-squitoes scurrying for cover.
There was “a lot, a lot, a lot of trial and error,” she noted, recalling attempts to nix the nitrogen using various oils and plant extracts. Eventually she switched from synthetic sweat to actual perspiration collected from Sachem athletes.
“There are certain things about human sweat – the smell, the pheromones – that you can’t 100 percent replicate,” Shah noted. “If I was going to create a product, it had to work on real peoples’ sweat.”
Finally, she struck on a “very effective” recipe, and in May 2014 incorporated Mosquitoes Be Gone LLC. She’s talking to lawyers now about patenting her formula – an “expensive proposition,” noted the entrepreneur, who’s sunk all that prize money and several thousands of her own dollars into her research – but she’s already working up a marketing strategy that will eventually get the repellent to the global corners where it’s needed most.
Her plan: Sell Mosquitoes Be Gone locally first – Long Island health-food stores and farmer’s markets – and then expand to other U.S. markets, using a portion of the proceeds to donate the repellent to organizations in India and Africa. After that, she’ll expand sales internationally.
“Selling here first and establishing a solid customer base is important,” Shah said. “And we can still help by donating the repellent (overseas).”
Doing things slightly out of order comes naturally to Shah, who was accepted to Stony Brook Medical before she ever took her first undergraduate class. In addition to being admitted to SBU, the Sachem North grad was welcomed into the university’s Scholars for Medicine program, which reserved her medical school placement four years in advance.
That guaranteed medical-school admission spared Shah from the expense and time-consuming trouble of applying to numerous medical schools, and that “definitely played a role” in the twentysomething’s ability to conduct research and get her startup off the ground.
Now, with the repellent formula set, the company launched and the kudos still pouring in, Shah is grappling with what comes next. Her top career goal is to become a medical correspondent for a major news network, although a private practice focused on pediatrics or oncology isn’t out of the question.
But first, she must figure out how to run her fledgling company while attending medical school. One idea is to hire a COO-type to run the business side. Licensing is also an option.
Somehow, the multitasking dilemma doesn’t seem beyond her.
“We’re going to pursue this as though we’re going to market it ourselves,” Shah said. “I’m not really sure where it’s going to go, but we’ll figure it out.”