What does it really take to develop and launch a major new variety into the market in 2013? We decided to find out by following the path of Greenhouse Grower’s 2012 Editor’s Choice Medal of Excellence winner, the Cool Wave pansy. Cool Wave was introduced at Spring Trials in 2012, sold in some markets last fall and is ready for its first full spring right now. It was the brainchild of PanAmerican Seed Head Breeder Troy Thorup, who was on a quest for a trailing, cool-season plant to fill the empty window boxes he saw while working in Europe.
“Around the time I started with PanAmerican, there was a recognition in Europe of the need to fill these window boxes that were planted in late spring, summer and fall with geraniums and other things,” Thorup says. “They were so beautiful. Then winter comes, they die, and you have empty window boxes everywhere.
“I was just beginning to breed violas; they were a target just because they’re a winter crop and they are floriferous,” he says. “The flower power of a viola is interesting, plus they have great weather tolerance. So it really started along those lines, and of course, we wanted something that would trail or cascade. That was the genesis of the project.”
Breeding Is An Evolving Process
Thorup says the first conversation about the project that eventually became the Cool Wave pansy took place in 2001. While 12 years ago seems like a long time, it is not unusual for introducing a new cultivar.
“If it is completely original and you’re starting from scratch, I would say seven to ten years is typical,” he says. “We did have the Plentifall pansy on the market for a year, which was a predecessor to Cool Wave. That was the first material starting to come out.”
While the goals were clearly outlined, the final plant took on its own shape and personality.
“The form it is in right now is not the one we envisioned,” Thorup says. “We were originally much more viola focused, with that smaller flower and flower power. I actually became a victim of my own success, because I was really focused on getting that vigorous trailing habit you see in Cool Wave. The problem was, as I increased the vigor of the plant, I increased the distance between the flowers. With the smaller [viola] flower, you actually saw green when you stepped back. We realized we couldn’t get more flowers — I already had one on each node — and at the same time, I’m also increasing the stem length. So now we had the plant we wanted, but it’s not giving us that pizzazz we were hoping for. The flower size was just too small.”
That problem led to a number of other questions, the main one being, what actually was the right flower size? Was the goal a flower the size of a pansy, which would reduce weather tolerance and the number of flowers?
“We wanted the best of both worlds — the flower power of a viola with as large a flower as we could get without sacrificing other benefits,” Thorup says. “And that’s where the Cool Wave is now. It’s not quite as large as the large-flowered pansy, but we have that flower count and the weather tolerance, the cascading habit and the color impact, where essentially all you see is color.”
The Long Wait
Thorup says breeders have to be eternal optimists because the vision they have in their heads isn’t always apparent to others who aren’t as intimately involved.
“There were definitely times in such a long developmental process when, while I was excited about it and trying to drum up support, there were a few people who were scratching their heads saying, ‘I’m not sure we’re on the right track here.’ I had no doubt I could get there, but at a certain point, we’re a business and we have to make money. So there were some times when I was a little bit panicked — not that I doubted the end result, but that I could get there within a timeframe that would allow everyone else to understand where I was going. When that happens and people are getting excited about it, it’s a relief, first of all, and it’s also gratifying to finally be able to show what’s been in my head. To finally have that vision come out in an end product is very satisfying.”
That time came about halfway through the process. After the turning point of deciding upon a larger flower size, Thorup introduced a new infusion of genetics in the next round of trials. “I remember the first trial where we saw the prototypes in the field,” he says. “There were three lines among an entire field of violas. As I looked over, I could just pick out those three lines so easily. The color impact was stunning, and that was the incarnation of Cool Wave. That’s when people really started getting excited about it.”
Thorup didn’t use advanced breeding technologies, saying pansy is not a good template for the newer techniques. “Much of it was really the basic, very traditional creative crafting over time,” he says.” There were a lot of various species I tapped into to come up with the end product. I had to go outside the common germplasm. It wasn’t a matter of just tweaking existing genetics.”
Market Positioning And Promotion
Developing a variety, as long as it takes, is only half of the process. Making sure it gets released and the attributes of the new plant are communicated to customers, which then translates to sales, is the other half. And for a plant with the game-changing potential of Cool Wave pansy, marketing strategy and execution takes extra planning. It is also a process that evolves as the plant develops.
“When Troy began the breeding process, joining it with the Wave family wasn’t on anybody’s mind at that point,” says Katie Rotella, spokesperson for Ball Horticultural Co., the parent company of PanAmerican Seed. “It really was just supposed to be a new pansy or viola class. The Wave brand had been established for 16 years at that point, and there was thought about maybe bringing another petunia into that class, but to bring in a whole different genus was not in the original plan.”
Rotella says it wasn’t until the Plentifall series was introduced in 2011 that people began to think differently. Scott Rusch, the product development director for PanAmerican, had been working closely with Thorup from the beginning and led that thought process.
There were two key factors that made Cool Wave pansy stand out, Rusch says — its cold hardiness and trailing habit.
“In trials in Zone 5 in Chicago, Germany or the United Kingdom, we would see 90 to 100 percent survival in the Cool Wave. In those same trials, standard pansies or violas might have just 30 to 50 percent, or even zero percent survival,” he says. “And, it gives growers a whole new category to sell. With Cool Wave, you have a vigorous trailing plant that will look fuller and have a lot more blooms per plant. The consumer takes it home, and within a few weeks, the basket is covered.”
Rusch says research showed consumers are more class blind than people in the industry are.
“Consumers told us they recognized the Wave name and the pink packaging. Not very many people pinged on the fact that it was specifically a petunia. Those of us in the industry can tell a viola from a pansy and a marigold from a gazania. But a lot of consumers don’t think about products that way. They just see color. And they want to buy something that will outperform their expectations, because all of them are really more or less scared of killing plants. We know that the biggest thing about Wave petunias is their performance, so that’s why we decided to extend the brand range of Wave into the cool-season segment with Cool Wave pansies.”
The “cool” in the name also helps to clarify when the product should be in stores — with cool-season annuals, not in the spring annuals or summer assortment. They really belong in the shoulder season, Rusch says, adding that it’s a category in which growers are asking for more choices.
Teamwork Brings Success
Both Rusch and Thorup say it takes a village to bring a new variety to market and are quick to credit others and each other. “Yes, I was the driving force behind Cool Wave on the breeding side, but that’s not enough to make the product successful,” Thorup says. “That’s just a piece. Scott and I have been partners in this for years now. We had to work closely together to troubleshoot issues as they came up. In addition to Scott, it really is a coordinated team effort from breeding through production, through marketing and through sales. Our team was phenomenal. As a breeder I’m very appreciative of that because these plants are like your children. To be able to hand them off and see other people carry them through with as much passion as I have has been exciting.” GG