When Lisa Ali Learning’s two sons became ill with Lyme disease three years ago in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, she was driven to act. After they recovered, she wanted to ensure her children, and their dog would be safe from ticks while continuing to enjoy the outdoors. Lisa’s solution led to the creation of AtlanTick Repellent Inc., and her work promoting Lyme disease awareness has been celebrated across the country. Her awards include an up-and-coming entrepreneurial 'Ones to Watch' award during the 27th annual RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards presented by Women of Influence. But the recognition, Lisa says, came at a price.
Can you imagine your young children suffering in pain, at times, without the ability to walk? Lisa can.
“I’m their mom. I felt helpless that they were suffering and I felt scared that no one knew what was wrong for so long.”
After insisting her very ill sons be tested for Lyme eight months after the boys first started exhibiting symptoms, they were finally diagnosed with Lyme arthritis. Previous testing had not been conducted because early stage testing for Lyme disease is only about 50 per cent accurate. Unfortunately, a large percentage of inaccurate tests in early stage infectious disease testing is common. Like many infections, including measles and HIV, the body needs time to produce enough antibodies to register a positive test, so it can be difficult to detect at the outset and symptoms are often misdiagnosed as a result.
“It’s really scary to think that there could be people in Canada living with Lyme but they dismiss the symptoms because were told they tested negatively. It’s a really confusing thing to have to go through. While my boys had Lyme arthritis, I have heard many stories where testing came back negative for Lyme and instead children were diagnosed with juvenile or rheumatoid arthritis, with emotional issues or having ADHD,” says Lisa, “I’ve heard of older people who were diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s. And, when I say older, I mean people in their 20’s.”
With climate change contributing to increases in the blacklegged tick population, the need for a natural preventative solution was obvious. Lisa came up with a solution that was effective and natural: a product that would be safe for children and pets who might come in contact with ticks.
“After seeing what my boys went through, I did not want to put DEET on them because it’s a poison that absorbs into the skin and I didn’t want to risk their health again,” says Lisa. “I wanted something that I knew would work, because that’s not something I wanted to take a chance on, but, I quickly learned that there are no all-natural tick repellents registered on the Canadian market.”
As a result, Lisa began experimenting with natural essential oils that appeared to deter the small bugs from attaching and eventually took some formulas to Acadia University’s biology department for testing and refinement.
“I wanted a product with science behind it, with accurate numbers, controlled studies and sound testing. I couldn’t find anyone doing it, so I decided if I wanted it done, I’m going to do it myself.”
That’s when Lisa met with Acadia University’s Dr. Nicoletta Faraone, who happened to not only be a biologist, but has a background in essential oils.
“It was kind of like the stars aligned for us to meet. We were both passionate about it and we are both determined to get something on the Canadian market, so Canadians can have a proven, reliable and effective solution to this problem.”
With Dr. Faraone’s help, the pair were able to break down the chemical compound from Lisa’s previous formula and figure out exactly which scents do not generate a response in ticks.
“We used electrodes to measure the tick’s responsive activity when it came to different scents, then we rebuilt the formula based on those results.”
Having experience as an entrepreneur who had managed and owned several small businesses over the previous 20 years, her work with Dr. Faraone sparked Lisa’s entrepreneurial tendencies and led to the creation of AtlanTick Repellent Inc. and its all-natural formula that has been proven to be nearly 98 per cent effective.
Currently, the company offers a safe and natural outdoor spray along with a collection of products including tick removers, accessories and tick safety resources for pets and people. However, for now, the company continues working towards registering the formula as a certified pest repellent with Health Canada, which requires a product performance of about 95 per cent repellency.
“To go through this process of registering our product with Health Canada, we’ve begun undertaking toxicology testing, which can be very expensive and unfortunately has to be conducted in the U.S. It’s a tedious and expensive process and we can only get there by selling our current lemon grass spray and our other tick-related products. So right now, we just keep re-investing until we can get those tests completed.”
“As a natural human response, we tend to have the ‘it’s not going to happen to me’ type attitude. So trying to send the message out there to people who have not been affected, directly or in-directly, can be quite difficult. Our biggest goal after selling the sprays and products is making people aware of the risks without causing unwarranted panic.”
Lisa’s story is a classic case of an entrepreneur seeing an opportunity to do some good during a challenging time. When asked what advice she might give to other entrepreneurs undertaking a new venture, this is what Lisa had to say:
“Do something that you absolutely love so that no matter what comes up or what gets you down, you keep going because the outcomes will be that much better. No matter what it is – whatever is important to you or whatever you’re passionate about seeing happen – find ways to make it happen yourself and never give up until you do. Don’t expect to not fail or make mistakes, those are the best moments to learn.”
As for her sons, recent tests have shown that both Darian and Lucas are now Lyme-free.
To help support the growing venture, the Government of Canada provided AtlanTick Repellent Products with up to $100,000, through ACOA and the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES), to boost the production of its natural tick repellent products. The funding is enabling the company to pursue market opportunities within Canada and internationally as the tick population continues to grow globally and reported cases of Lyme Disease and tick-borne illnesses rise. The company has also recently hired two sales brokers to help widen the company’s potential markets, with hopes to expand across the country in 2020.
For more information on programs and services available to businesses in Atlantic Canada call 1-800-561-7862 or go to www.canada.ca/acoa
 Health Canada: Value Guidelines for New Personal Insect Repellent Products and Label Amendments https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/consumer-product-safety/reports-publications/pesticides-pest-management/policies-guidelines/value-new-personal-insect-repellent-products-label-amendments.html