When St. Paul-based Ecolab unveiled its Stealth Fly Station at a trade show, it won an award along with new customers.
The 1,500 flies buzzing fiercely in Staci Johnston's laboratory at Ecolab Inc. are just as happy laying eggs in rotten food or manure as they are dive-bombing somebody's dinner.
"That's why we call them filth flies," the Ecolab technologist recently told a tour group.
But the St. Paul-based company has come up with a high-tech, surreptitious tool to rid restaurants, grocers and hospitals of these invasive, bacteria-carrying pests. It unveiled its Stealth Fly Station at the National Restaurant Show in May, where the company stunned audiences with the device's ability to quickly eradicate flies within minutes.
The station looks like an innocent flat-screen, but it discreetly attracts the pests with its dark surface and a stench that flies love. Flies swarm to it like addicts needing a fix and then start dropping dead ... well, like flies.
The device, which would hang outside a building or a dumpster, has already won the 2012 Kitchen Innovation Award from the National Restaurant Association and has won new customers in the United States and Canada. The Stealth Fly Station is even scheduled to be installed in several restaurants in London in time for the Olympic games.
If successful, analysts and company executives said the device could elevate Ecloab's $329 million pest-control business to a new level. "If this looks better than the fly paper hanging from the ceiling and it does pretty much the same job, you can certainly see the appeal to restaurant bar areas, [because] it looks like a big-screen TV," said Longbow research analyst Dmitry Silversteyn.
A recent YouTube video shows an Ecolab lab worker releasing 1,500 flies in a lab room equipped with a fly station. Minutes later, 1,300 flies were lifeless on the table and all over floor. The simplistic black screen took two years and insanity-inducing research to perfect.
Douglas Gardner Ecolab's senior entomologist who co-developed the product with Staci Johnston, watched the winged pests over time, observing their every move.
"We spent hours doing that and discovered some things that I don't think anybody ... would ever see ... you go a little stir-crazy watching a fly fly around."
After much swatting, the flies ignored their lab-coated visitors and buzzed over to dark objects in the room. But they didn't necessarily land.
"This was so predictable, that I knew that ... if we could just get them to land then we could do something with that fly," Gardner said. Pesticides could be applied, but first the flies had to touch the darkened surface.
The duo tried things like sound, heat and ultraviolet light, but those methods failed. But when Gardner and Johnston put an "odor packet" under the black screen, things got interesting.
The females darted toward the stench and tried to lay eggs. Male flies clung to the edge of the black screen, waited for the females to draw near and then zipped after them like boys in a school yard.
This happened again and again: in the lab, in the field, and around the doorways of horse barns. "I can't tell you what is in the fly's mind," Gardner said. "But I can tell you that when they landed around that dark surface, it seems to be similar to what they do around [barn door] openings," Gardner said.
Once Gardner and Johnston got the flies to land on the contraption, they applied a pesticide to the black screen. The flies died off once they touched it.
Soon the Stealth Fly Station was born. It didn't cost millions of dollars to develop, but it is expected to generate "significant" returns, said Ecloab marketing manager Robert Ed, who declined to talk about sales projections.
So what might the "station" mean to Ecolab?
"I would not be surprised if the excitement about this new product, the novelty and differentiated approach to controlling flies, allows them to re-approach the customer, re-engage them and get back into ... a full pest-control program," said Silversteyn at Longbow Research.
If it succeeds, it will have done something important for the bug-control business, he said. Industrywide, "pest elimination was hit very hard during the recession," he said. Customer-starved restaurants and hotels cut expenses like pest control until their pesky problems -- and harmful bacteria like E. coli -- returned.
At $329 million, Ecolab's pest elimination sales and service revenues were flat last year. They dipped 1 percent in 2010. They're up 4 percent for the first quarter of 2012 and officials hope sales keep rising.
The Stealth Fly Station costs less than $100, but won't be sold by itself and consumers can't buy it Wal-Mart. Instead, Ecolab will bundle it into a monthly service for restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, hospitals, schools and other institutional customers who pay a monthly fee for the pesticide and scent reapplication.
Annika Stensson, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, said that the Stealth Fly Station was selected for its annual award by a panel of food safety judges that included officials from McDonald's, Sodexo, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and The Air Force Services Agency. "It's innovative and top-of-the-line," she said.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725