The company is growing its presence in the plant protection market with the introduction of two new UniTech Products: Trigon and Wingspan fungicides. We asked formulation expert Casey McDonald to explain how combining key active ingredients with Aquatrols water management technologies can make a big difference in uniformity and performance.
By Pat Jones
Of all the new initiatives that Aquatrols has undertaken in the past five years, creating its own line of plant protection products is perhaps the most intriguing. Why would a 75-year-old wetting agent company get into the business of helping turf pros control weeds, insects and diseases?
We put that question – and a bunch of others – to Casey McDonald, who’s helped to spearhead the development and manufacture of the company’s UniTech plant protection products, an entirely new concept that combines some of the turf industry’s most valued active ingredients with exactly the right Aquatrols water management technology to deliver plant protection solutions as uniformly as possible.
McDonald is an Ohio State turf graduate who was on his way to becoming a super when an internship with the Scotts Company opened his eyes to the world of formulation and manufacturing. He graduated in 2000 and spent most of the next two decades helping Scotts develop, improve and source materials for its consumer lines.
In 2019, when his Scotts R&D colleague Darryl Ramoutar moved to Aquatrols, McDonald came along to help the 75-year-old company meet a big challenge: start an entirely new plant protection business that leveraged the surfactant technology that made the company successful for decades. Today he oversees Aquatrols’ supply chain, purchasing, manufacturing operations and customer service.
Now, as the company launches two more new UniTech products – Trigon and Wingspan – we spoke with McDonald about how integrating water management technology with plant health technology is a win for customers.
How did the industry’s oldest water management company decide to start a new business in plant protection?
Aquatrols had already purchased the old Phoenix LLC products (Poa Constrictor and Dovetail) when I started, but the plan was always to expand and create new products as well. We knew building out the portfolio with products that included surfactant technology was going to be the next big step. Working with those legacy products gave us a chance to establish that part of our business within Aquatrols. It helped us get comfortable and gave us a start on building out the manufacturing.
Lots of people offer post-patent plant protection products. Why is this different?
The key question for us was finding needs where superintendents typically use control products in concert with our existing wetting agent products. We looked at a bunch of combinations to decide what made the most sense for us to develop next. How were turf pros using Revolution or Dispatch working with pre-emergent herbicides or subsurface insect control products? Where else could we improve on tank mixing by formulating wetting agent technology along with an active ingredient? What combination could we create that leveraged the benefit of more uniform delivery?
So, we identified all these areas where supers were already using our surfactants along with specific active ingredients. The challenge was to build that into the jug and give them more uniform delivery. We launched that UniTech concept with Basilisk and Griffin and now we have Trigon and Wingspan as well.
What was your key takeaway in the process of creating the UniTech concept?
It really comes down to creating formulations that deliver active ingredients more effectively because we’ve incorporated our surfactant technology to make it a “spreading agent” as much as a wetting agent. It’s all about enhanced delivery. The idea is to reduce surface tension between the spray solution and the target surface and flatten out the bumps that might keep the active from getting where it needs to be.
Does this eliminate the need for wetting agents as valuable tank-mix ingredients?
No, we’re not trying to replace the wetting agents. People are still going to need those every day. But we can build in some of that enhanced delivery into a formula. We built Basilisk and Griffin from the ground up based on that. We did a lot of lab work and showed that those formulas were stable and that there was a delivery benefit. Now we’re growing the portfolio with Trigon and Wingspan, which is our first fungicide (fluazinam).
So the goal was to find post-patents that worked best with your water management technologies?
Right. Our job was to look for those opportunities. Where were uniform distribution and soil moisture most important on the list of things superintendents valued? They already saw the benefit and were tank-mixing to get some of it, but we were able to make this simpler and more seamless. There’s less concocting in the tank and some of our expertise is built into every bottle. We’re the only ones who can do that.
What’s the feedback been on the UniTech concept?
We’ve had a lot of conversations with customers and distribution and we’re finding it makes a lot of sense to them. It’s intuitive that the added value from the surfactant technology is a big benefit. People get the marriage between Aquatrols’ legacy products and these control products.
It’s worth noting that our proprietary blends of surfactants and actives are not easy for others to duplicate. It’s best-in-class technology. We can leverage decades of knowledge in the water management space that gives users a nice benefit.
So how do you marry the right water management technology with a particular active ingredient?
We’re not choosing, necessarily, the same surfactant chemistry for each product. We’re trying to tailor the addition to have specific value for that product. Take our new fluazinam product, for example. It’s a contact product and you want to enhance foliar coverage, so we spent a lot of time thinking about how that product is used and what kind of surfactant chemistry would have the most benefit. It’s not one size fits all choice…it’s very much tailored to the use pattern of the product.
How does this play into the larger growth of Aquatrols as more than just a water management company?
We’re excited to finally be able to bring customers a trifecta of hydration, nutrition and protection products. We think we’re the only ones who can offer that whole spectrum of solutions. And we’ll be able to incentivize use of any or all of them through our Approach loyalty program. We’re excited about building that portfolio and growing that program with more of what superintendents need.
How has having your own research site at Aura Farm helped to speed up the development process?
This is the first full year we’ve had the farm available for research and events and that’s been fantastic. We’re also doing trials with customers, particularly early adopters and influencers who can give us the feedback we need. That qualitative feedback is a huge help.
So, what’s the bottom line? Why does this formulation concept matter to customers?
It unequivocally enhances delivery of that active ingredient. We have the lab data to support that. The more coverage the better and UniTech provides more coverage. That’s why it should matter a lot to customers.