Entrepreneur Wins Small-Business Competition

By John Cropley The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A decade ago, entrepreneur Gina Grillo found a tick on her scalp and soon afterward became very sick with Lyme disease. After recovering, she looked for a non-toxic product to keep ticks away. That search led to the creation of her company and "Grillo's Essential Insect Repellent."

GREENWICH

A longtime entrepreneur and one-time Lyme disease patient has won a national award to expand her business selling all-natural insect repellent.

Gina Grillo of Grillo Essentials last week was named a top prize winner in the SCORE American Small Business Championship, an honor that carries a $25,000 award and a year's worth of mentoring.

"It's a huge recognition," she said Monday.

SCORE is a national organization that fosters entrepreneurs just starting out.

Grillo has been seeing a steady growth in the market for her Grillo's Essential Insect Repellent, which she makes in a home workshop and sells to retailers around the Capital Region and three New England states.

It's a product with roots in an unpleasant experience for Grillo.

A decade ago, she found an embedded tick on her scalp one day and very soon afterward was very sick with Lyme disease. After recovering, she looked for a non-toxic product to keep ticks away.

"I tried to find a repellent that satisfied my needs and couldn't find anything," she said.

Grillo decided to make her own, and turned to something she knew about: essential oils. Most other products that relied on oils contained only two to four, she said, but "I really wanted to go full-spectrum."

With a lot of field testing -- right in her own back yard in Greenwich, which is flush with deer and ticks -- she started to determine which ones worked best.

She decided to add black flies and mosquitoes to the list of target insects vulnerable to her ingredients and conducted black fly tests in Indian Lake, where she grew up.

Finding the right balance of eight oils and then a base liquid in which to mix them took longer than choosing the oils themselves. The final formulation includes geranium, lemon and catnip oils in a fractionated coconut oil base.

Grillo didn't round up ticks and put them in a controlled lab setting to test the various formulations; she applied the oils to herself and went out in real-world conditions. When she was satisfied she had one that worked, had family members test it as well. She rolled it out for sale soon after, cold-calling retailers to get shelf space.

"Then I had people tracking me down, knocking on my door, wanting to buy 10," she said.

Grillo's Essential Insect Repellent is now available at locations ranging from the Niskayuna Co-Op to Northshire Bookstore to Double M Western. Marketing was initially by word of mouth, but SCORE has moved Grillo toward using social media more.

"We had to really get the word out on Facebook to get the vote," She said.

Grillo buys her ingredients by the kilogram and mixes and packages them in a home workshop with two part-time assistants. She's able to do this without a license or training because she's not working with hazardous substances.

"The eight oils I chose are all on the EPA minimum-risk list," she said.

As long as they are used on the skin, not taken internally, the ingredients are not known to be harmful. Combined into a bug repellent, they'll last a few hours to a full day, depending on the user's skin and activities.

Grillo had limited involvement with SCORE before the entering this year's small business competition, which is the fourth for SCORE and was sponsored by Sam's Club. She expects to be more involved with SCORE now -- guiding her will be two mentors from SCORE's Saratoga County chapter: Bill Edwards and Richard Sellers.

In the first round of the competition, she and 101 other business owners from 49 states and the District of Columbia each won $1,000 prizes.

In the championship round, for the first time, three winners were chosen to win $25,000 each. The other two were: -- Competitive Edge Athletic Performance Center, a multisports facility in Woodbridge, Va., founded by Monte Evans, designed to train youth and focus on the "complete athlete" one excelling in athletics and academics.

-- One Community Auto, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based business owned by disabled U.S. Air Force veteran Gary Peterson to help nonprofits raise money through car donations.

Grillo said she will be using some of the techniques she adopted to win the grand prize -- particularly social media and videos -- as she works to expand her business, which also includes pillows and sachets.

"SCORE challenged us to be very creative and go outside the box," she said.

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