The Hour: Norwalk Company Offers New Take on Insect Repellent
(The Hour) On an otherwise proud list of Connecticut exports to the nation and the world, bearing a dubious asterisk has been the tick-borne scourge of Lyme disease, with more than 200,000 confirmed cases in the United States over eight years through 2015.
On pallets in a South Norwalk shipping bay on Thursday, an inaugural batch of bug repellent is ready to go that will provide a summer’s worth of protection for 100,000 people from coast to coast — with plenty more to percolate just down the street to be bottled for future orders.
Under founders Chris Fuentes and Ted Kesten, PiC20 launched sales this week of Ranger Ready insect repellent, based on an active ingredient called Picaridin that mimics the qualities of a substance found in pepper plants that wards off ticks as well as mosquitoes and other insects.
Kesten is the former CEO of the Yonkers, N.Y.-based fragrance maker Belmay Group, then running the design firm Scent2Market. Fuentes’ background is in consumer products marketing, including with Yankee Candle and Cannondale in Wilton.
Connecticut had more than 1,200 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in 2016 for an incidence rate of about 35 cases in every 10,000 residents. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommends insect repellent as the first shield against Lyme disease, along with awareness for early symptoms when medical intervention stands the best chance of beating the disease.
Picaridin has been used extensively in Europe as an active ingredient in insect repellents, but less so in the United States, with the Environmental Protection Agency approving its use in 2005. The EPA has determining that normal use of Picaridin-based repellents present no health concerns to the general public.
“Tick-borne diseases and Lyme disease has really affected all of our families,” Fuentes said. “We want to shine a light on Picaridin — we think it’s a better solution than what’s available today. ... It just didn’t make sense to us that this product was only 5 percent of a $1 billion market.”
From DEET to Deep Woods
Few commercial insect repellent formulas existed prior to World War II, when the U.S. government began screening possible compounds that eventually numbered about 20,000, according to researchers at Iowa State University. In 1956, DEET emerged as an effective repellent and was adopted widely for consumer use.
Both the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have studied whether DEET causes adverse health effects, without finding that to be the case with normal usage. But not all are sold, including Fuentes, who keeps a board at hand in South Norwalk, with paint blistering on one side that he says was coated with a DEET-based insect repellent, and the other side normal where he says Ranger Ready was applied.
Still, DEET is the active ingredient in five of the top seven insect repellents recommended in an October study by Consumer Reports, including the top-rated Total Home Woodland Scent Insect Repellent sold by CVS; Off Deep Woods from SC Johnson; and Ben’s.
Of the two outliers in that group, Repel got high scores for an insect repellent made from eucalyptus oil; and Sawyer made the top echelon with a Picaridin-based formula. Consumer Reports included in the study a few other Picaridin-based repellent brands found to have lesser effectiveness, including Natrapel, Avon and Off FamilyCare.
Myriad more companies have concocted DEET-free formulas to deter insects, including the Norwalk startup Basic Naturals, which uses a mix of citronella, apple cider vinegar, geranium and lemongrass oils among other ingredients.
What the pros use
Fuentes and Kesten plan to pursue a direct-sales model for Ranger Ready rather than selling through mass retailers, reaching out initially to golf pro shops and industry associations; state agencies or others that have personnel out in the field who face exposure to ticks; and, of course, youth camp operators.
“Now more than ever, kids go to camp and it’s, ‘OK, what sunscreen is safe for them? What bug spray?’” said Ryan Mahoney, who joined Ranger Ready this month as head of sales. “We see those (sales channels) as making the most sense.”
Ranger Ready is being sold in three scents initially — Ranger orange, amber and night sky for evenings — with a fourth in the works featuring floral scents. Prices range from $7 to $15 across three sizes, with information online at rangerready.com and the company operating a factory store at 87 Water St. in South Norwalk.
Fuentes originally envisioned that location as a store and cafe called Americana’s Artisans Concept Shop that would promote as many as a dozen brands under the umbrella of the parent 1777 Co., but said he has mothballed the project to focus his energies and available capital on building up Ranger Ready.
Still in place is a sophisticated web ordering and fulfillment center that is now being pressed into service to ship Ranger Ready, with bottles stacked on pallets alongside shipping boxes made of recycle materials from the Danbury Square Box Co. Ranger Ready is made in South Norwalk by Ecometics, a contract manufacturer that produces everything from shampoo to stain removers.
On Thursday, Fuentes, Kesten and company got to work boxing up orders coming in for Ranger Ready, with visitors wandering into the factory outlet, as well, easily visible with bottles arrayed in a display window.
“We want to (be) ... the brand that the pros use,” Fuentes said. “If the rangers and the guys who have to go out there and protect us every day use this product, then we feel pretty good about putting it on.”
By Alexander Soule