After overcoming a gopher problem at his home, inventor develops rodent solution for thousands of others
Understanding your customer’s pain points is key to running any successful business. Joe Ascuitto definitely does; in fact, you could say he has even walked a mile in their shoes.
In the mid-1980s, Joe bought a home on an acre of land just outside of San Diego, CA. He liked the idea of getting away from city congestion after a long shift as a firefighter and enjoying the peace and quiet at his home on a large lot. Unfortunately, he quickly met some unwelcomed guests. A ton of gophers were wreaking havoc on Joe’s property and much of the neighborhood. The seller of the property had warned him about the problem, but Joe clearly underestimated it.
“Where I lived before, there was hard, rocky soil (not ideal for gophers), so a problem like this was new to me”
In tackling the gopher infestation, traps and poisons offered only marginal success, and Joe weighed other options. He had heard of a long-time approach of pumping exhaust fumes from an internal combustion engine into the tunnels, allowing the carbon monoxide to kill the rodents inside their tunnel systems. He knew it was impractical to try to hook a hose up to the exhaust on his car, so he researched other ways of doing it. All that problem solving and idea gathering also proved to be the start of a journey to develop one of the most innovative burrowing rodent control systems that thousands of pest management professionals (PMPs) are now using today – BurrowRx.
An Inventor Gets to Work
Joe had always been mechanically inclined. When he joined the San Diego Fire Department in the late 1960s, he not only fought fires, but also worked on engines and maintained vehicles. Through the years, he’d always tinkered with different mechanical ideas and even held two patents – one for an antenna mounting device on off-road vehicles and another for a clip to put on gas nozzles to help with filling gas cans.
To tackle the gopher problem at his residence, he used the motor from a gas-powered generator he owned. He attached hoses to it in hopes of directing the smoke into the tunnels to eradicate the gophers.
One major problem he needed to overcome was that the hoses would not hold up to the heat of the engine’s exhaust gasses. A solution was finally found, but it took years. A greater challenge proved to be figuring out if the exhaust he was pumping into the tunnels was actually eradicating doing the job. After using the device, sometimes, he would go for long stretches without seeing gophers, then they would come back again. He couldn’t figure out if it was the result of the entire neighborhood being infested with the gophers or if it was because the CO machine wasn’t effective. Both issues were likely the problem, he figured, but then one day, he had a breakthrough idea that, after years of development, would become one of the primary differentiating features of the device known today as GopherX and BurrowRx, used by thousands of PMPs and everyday people battling burrowing rodent problems.
“I decided to use smoke, so I could see where the carbon monoxide was going. That way I could see if it was escaping a tunnel before it got to the rodent”
Finding the Right Formula
At first, Joe used motor oil to create the smoke, which proved to be an unclean approach that burned up hoses and blocked up the manifolds. He tried wood chips and vegetable and mineral oils, too, seeing mixed results. Some oils burned too fast, others too slow. Eventually, he settled on a blend of oils he formulated himself, which is today’s BurrowRx Smoke Oil.
With the smoke formulation in place, he now knew the device had taken care of his gopher problem. Joe still always tinkered with the device’s design – the frame, engine size, different hoses, other oil blends, and so on. By 2000, he felt he had a good working prototype that was successful in keeping his and his neighbors’ gopher problem at bay. The working prototype, he admits, wasn’t a work of art.
“It was a cobbled up looking thing. I didn’t care what it looked like. I just cared that it worked”
Even with all the design breakthroughs, Joe still didn’t feel there was anything patentable on the design. And his goal was still primarily to have a solid machine that could help his community, if needed. But after meeting PMPs who were impressed with the device and knowing that a growing number of people in his community were satisfied with its performance, he sought the advice of his attorney anyway. The attorney ended up filing for 23 patents, 18 which were granted after several years.
In the meantime, he began selling the machines through Craigslist ads under the name GopherX and was content with the occasional sale that would come along.
One Key Customer
In 2014, Peter Kinnally had a gopher problem too. After moving to a home on a 2.5-acre lot in Alpine, CA, the infestation proved to be far more than he could handle.
“A neighbor told me about the gophers. … I used traps at first and caught maybe a dozen of them and realized I wasn’t making a dent,” he said. “I felt like there must have been a couple hundred gophers. They were causing damage in the gardens and killing trees, pushing dirt out from behind a retaining wall. I had no possible chance of ever having a vegetable garden; they were killing everything.”
Peter saw Joe’s ad on Craigslist and asked if he could try the device. “After about three days, I realized I had resolved a substantial part of the gopher problem and I ended up buying the rental machine,” he said.
A Business Idea is Born
Peter found himself loaning the GopherX device to neighbors, who were impressed with the results. Having some experience with online businesses, he approached Joe about selling GopherX through an ecommerce site. The inventor agreed, and Kinnally was able to sell roughly one machine per month, and after a few months, sales grew well beyond that. At the same time, a farm supply company had also agreed to sell GopherX.
Eventually, Peter would buy a controlling interest from Joe, who was retired and didn’t want to deal with the hassles of running a company. The arrangement leverages their strengths. Joe oversees mechanical and production elements, while Peter handles marketing and running day-to-day sales and operations.
“Peter’s been extremely good with marketing it and doing that, which I would not have been able to do. I take care of the mechanical stuff; he takes care of the business side,” Joe added.
A Solution for PMPs
The product, now called BurrowRx, has appealed to PMPs in particular. The name change came as a result of learning that the device is capable of eradicating all types of burrowing rodent infestations.
“It will take care of moles, gophers, voles, prairie dogs, ground hogs, armadillos, basically any animal with lungs that has a burrowing system”
Municipality maintenance staff, golf course operators and farm owners have also shown interest in BurrowRx.
Over the years, very few design changes have been needed. Briggs and Stratton supplies the 4-stroke engine. Regional welders and components manufacturers have become adept at understanding the manufacturing and quality demands of the product as well. Since 2015, the company has seen steady sales growth of 25 to 30 percent a year, Peter said.
With a growing number of satisfied customers, including PMPs, homeowners and many others, the device has also undergone outside testing. A 2017 report from Sierra Research Laboratories, Inc. in Modesto, CA, involved a test site with dozens of open ground squirrel burrows. The areas had a high infestation rate with tunnel systems located on berms and along ditch banks. The experiment used BurrowRx for 23 active ground squirrel burrows and had a 95.7% efficacy rate.
BurrowRx is designated as a pest control device by the EPA. The carbon monoxide quickly dissipates and the device does not require rodenticides. Users also appreciate that the device directly targets rodents inside the tunnel system, making for a quick extermination that seldom requires the handling of animals after treatment.
“The response we’re getting from users has been excellent. We built the company for PMPs, but we’re finding there are many other markets looking at the product”
As for Joe, the 72-year-old inventor finds himself content with his role in finding good suppliers for quality parts, entertaining ideas for better design, and generally sticking to the product tinkering part of the business.
“I basically let Peter make the final business decisions,” he said. “Sometimes, I give my input but you can’t have people pulling in different directions. You gotta let go and let someone be in charge.”