The Boring Effectiveness of R&D


First published on Natural Products Insider.

October 15, 2014

Research and development is all about standing on the shoulders or our predecessors. Coming up with novel ideas that are not derived from the fruits of someone else’s labor is rare. It just doesn’t happen that often anymore. It’s not that we have figured everything out already; rather, we are in the stage of combining everything we have figured out already.

This industry is an example of exactly that. These plants we sell have been around for a long time and instructions for their use have been around nearly just as long. We took a closer look over the last few hundred years and figured out what’s inside the plants that really matters. Someone said, “What if we concentrate that stuff in the plant…” and then figured out how to make extracts. Then someone said, ‘I really like this stuff but I wonder if we can figure out how to get it out from all the other stuff in the plant” and single phytochemical extracts were born.

Today, this trend continues where we use the technology of big-pharma and biotech in the dietary supplement industry to offer up a new version of nature’s bounty in the form of nutraceuticals. To finish this process, simply add a sexy suffix to the end of an already used botanical name and you have a branded ingredient. Oh, and don’t forget the trademark and patent attorneys to protect your intellectual property.

I recently had a conversation with my cousin, a high school junior, who asked for my guidance for an upcoming science fair. I explained to her that we could devise an experiment that is executable in my lab, relevant to current global issues, and cool (because that’s important, too). She was ecstatic to say the least.

I then proceeded to explain how R&D doesn’t always produce mind-shattering results. Sometimes R&D produces results that don’t really tell us anything new. Really… Sometimes all we find out is that your novel idea of “turning left when everyone else has been going right all these years” didn’t produce the results we anticipated, dreamed about, and prepared marketing for.

That’s science though. That’s R&D. It’s that data that others can learn from and stand upon and say, “Oh, so that didn’t work. Let’s not try that. Let’s try something else novel. How about we combine two successful discoveries of yesteryear and make a new product!’

My point is that R&D is not only about producing results. Rather, it’s important to lay the foundation for the next experiment.

R&D from the lab perspective is filed under “This might be complicated…” As I have written in the past, oftentimes the fruits of R&D come in all shapes and sizes—including pseudo novel amalgamations of things that already exist—but are now made more complicated do to their combination of refined phytochemicals that were fine in their previous form but needed a rebranding to sell more or combinations of all of the above. These all require new test methods and that’s a challenge for any lab to cope with. When performed correctly it may be more expensive than the average routine analysis. Our best bet is to partner with an ingredient supplier who knows how it should be tested and what their customers plan to do with it.

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