By: Nina Notman
“I’ve always had a passion for building products,” explains Ryan Cotroneo. “I came from an agricultural family. My great grandma had a big farm, with an orchard and vineyard, and I used to watch her turn out cider and hundreds of baked goods. She was a real artist.”
Today, Cotroneo works for the industrial and institutional cleaning product maker UNX Industries based in Greenville, North Carolina. Its products include laundry detergents for continuous batch washers and specialized detergents for athletic laundry. The New York Yankees are one sports team the company works with. “The different polymer blends used in the jerseys means there's a real complexity to making sure that those are clean,” Cotroneo says.
Cotroneo’s route to his current role included a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master's in chemistry, both at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. After graduation, in 2014, he joined UNX Industries as a formulation chemist and worked his way up the chain to become chief technology officer (CTO) in May 2019.
When designing a new cleaning product, formulation chemists first mine the published literature and competitor patents to find a framework formulation recipe. “After that point, we can really be innovative and start tweaking different ingredient profiles to generate more value for the customer,” says Cotroneo. As CTO, he works with UNX’s sales team to decide what new products the company will formulate and then guides them through the development pipeline. A particular focus is ensuring smooth handoffs between R&D, manufacturing, and other groups within the company. “It’s very important that this rhythm is as efficient as possible for us to be competitive,” Cotroneo says.
Cotroneo may have hung up his white coat at work, but at home he and his wife are constantly experimenting–especially using the fermentation techniques he first experienced as a child on the family farm. Products the couple produces include cider, sourdough bread, beer and the tea kombucha.
What is your proudest career moment to date?
Supporting the company’s transition to new ownership. We had been under ownership by a local family for over 40 years and transitioned to another local family. Upwards of 75 local employees transitioned with us.
Who is your scientific hero?
Fehmi Damkaci, my [research adviser] and the chair of the department for chemistry at SUNY Oswego. I wouldn't have been able to reach my full potential without him. He was so pivotal for both my professional and personal growth.
The best piece of professional advice you have to offer early career chemists?
Realize the power of being of service in your current role, even if it's not something you feel like you're going to be a lifer at. Everyone that you help while you figure out your direction will be there for you when you're transitioning to your next stage.
What's the hardest part of your job?
I'm a true believer that the fish rots at the head. Making sure that I'm feeding my team the most relevant projects and information to keep the company in a strong position is something that weighs heavily on me.
How do you see the cleaning product industry evolving in the next decade?
We've got a lot of regulatory changes coming that will change ingredient profiles to protect both the environment and end user. I also see more effort to educate the end consumer on how to clean and maintain their environments to mitigate risk.
What was your first job?
It was in a metal working shop making products for cars and industrial equipment. I would grind an item down for eight hours, and then paint it. It was arduous but it was cool seeing your finished work at the end of the day. Once you become a chemist, it’s longer-term work.
If you weren't a chemist, what would you be?
I’d be involved in the production of food and beverage goods, especially those made using fermentation.
Where's your favorite spot in the world to sit and drink a beer?
Edinburgh, Scotland. Getting a good walk in and going down to one of the BrewDog brewery spots was awesome. We had a heck of a time.
What do you like to do to relax?
My wife and I just love spending time exercising together and pushing one another. We love big hikes, runs, and weight training sessions.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.
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