Selecting the Right Herbal Consulting for R&D

In this episode, Blake Ebersole, founder of NaturPro Scientific, and Willson discuss herbal product development and formulation. They also discuss FDA compliance work, quality control and supply chain issues. Listen and learn more about what’s happening in R&D in 2022.


Wilson Lau (00:07):

Welcome. Thanks for joining me for another episode of herbal explorations, a journey through the supply chain. I would like to welcome my dear friend Blake Ebersole, the founder of NaturPro Scientific to discuss the importance of selecting the right herbal consultant.


Blake Ebersole (00:38):

No, I think you covered a lot of it. Yeah.


Wilson (00:42):

That's great. Well, thank you for joining me on the show. Let's dive right into it. I was doom scrolling one night on LinkedIn and came across your article, your LinkedIn article, 'why I Offer Free Advice To Early Startups' and just made me stop and to think about the early stage prospects that I talked to as well. I think your advice about the splash screen process is brilliant. Not only do you give them food for thought, but can quickly ascertain if they're a viable client.


Wilson (01:16):

Great piece of advice in your article for consultants or people that want to be consulted is offering free advice during your intake process. I think if you ask the right questions you're not only helping them but you're also vetting the potential of this prospective client as well. How has this process helped you reduce headaches and cut through the noise to find the right clients?


Blake Ebersole (01:40):

We've been fortunate to be able to talk with so many people that are really interested in selling their own supplements and really want to create their own product and you can feel their excitement and they've talked to manufacturers and they've done a decent amount of research. But what they're often not hearing is some of the realities of what you face when you're developing natural products. When you've seen a lot of successes as well as a lot of failures you're bound to have experienced some pain that you see other people about to do.

And so it's almost like if you consider a toddler about to walk into the street or a kid running with scissors, you're like, whoa, let's take a step back. And so a lot of consultants might want to develop it as a lead and try to close the sale, but at the same time if there's something, an obvious flaw or issue with what somebody's talking about, well, I can tell you that to you right now. As a consultant, it's helped simplify my life a lot because I'm still offering something of value to people that need it the most and not taking up so much of my time going back and forth and trying to educate and coach

And so there's a few lines of questioning that we go through to really nail down and make sure, okay, have you really thought about this fully? I've heard some crazy ideas too where it's like, you want to put what? In what? To do what?


Wilson (03:42):

I love that. One of the things is that based on your experience, how many prospects don't really understand what dietary supplement is and propose a product that is... you're like, what do you want to do? Can you give a sample of a product that people think is a supplement but isn't and you're like, this cannabis... I guess now depending on your format and whatnot it's a sup... It can be marketed as a supplement, but what are some sort of far out ideas that people come up to you frequently with that you see and you're like, that's not a supplement. That's an alcoholic beverage or something.


Blake Ebersole (04:21):

That's right. And not everything can be a supplement. And first of all you have to swallow it into your stomach first. And, and so you see a lot of inhalable or transdermals or other... putting it in other parts of your body where it's clearly not a supplement. It might be a medical place or drug or a combination product sometimes. There's such a thing as combination products. And so these become tricky regulatory categories and it's not exactly clear to the layperson, well, how would I classify a product?

There's no flow diagram on FDA's website that is easy to... for the average person to understand. And so you almost need to have somebody help you, or at least show you the path there. But another is thinking that the ingredient is safe or legal for that use. And so you see, people want to put supplement ingredients in the foods but the ingredient isn't generally recognized as safe as required for a food. And so you see a lot of different ingredients. "Well look, this ingredient is used forever in India". It doesn't mean it's legal in the U.S. Other thing is you have people say, "Oh, well so and so is selling it. So, and so is doing it, why can't I?" Then it's like, well if somebody else jumped off a bridge would you do that too?


Wilson (05:56):

Well, you're talking my language. Having a two and four year old, jumping off the bridge is not advisable and is great advice. And a perfect example is kreatom, right? It's not a dietary supplement. But people sell it, it masquerades as a dietary supplement. So I think a lot of this has reality based advice. And also think just because it's a combination product, it may be now your client no longer.The resources they need monetarily, isn't a 10, 20, 30, $40,000 resource because now it is a combination product that crosses over the drug or medical device area, that budget has to have X extra zero or even more.

So I think it's lot of it's also as you're talking to them, you're really ascertaining do they have what it takes to be a client and a busy person like you and your service is so in demand it's really about, hey, how do I use my time in a manner that fulfills me and also I provide value and work on these projects that are viable? Nothing's worse than when you spend four, five, six hours, sure you get to bill it, but you just spun the wheels and it feels to me that that kind of stuff is draining. So I think it is important for consultants to vet who they want to work with as well, especially once they have a full book of business.


Blake Ebersole (07:42):

That's totally right and every conversation you have is kind of fact finding where you're trying to figure out is it a good fit for me? And some people enjoy that coaching and teaching aspect of walking somebody through the process and repeating yourself sometimes and you can make a lot of money off of that sometimes. For me, I go towards what builds my energy the most and usually that's on interesting and novel things, or solving difficult problems. So I'd rather not repeat myself a lot but if I can help someone in 15 minutes then I'm happy to do that.


Wilson (08:21):

Yeah. And I think recently I'm taking this... working on this course with Robert Craven about the zone of genius, and what's above your line and what energizes you. And I think that's really important to understand, hey, where do I really want to play? Where do I really want to use my time that I have and how do I add value and create happiness for yourself? So I'd love that.

And I think it's so important to find the right consultants, especially one that not only offers his or her technical expertise, but also acts as an advisor to your business to help avoid any potential pitfalls and challenges or assumptions and challenges your assumptions based on their experience. Where do you land on this? Obviously if you find the right consultant they should have the right technical expertise, but not all consultants are advisors or offer advice, I guess.


Blake Ebersole (09:21):

Yeah. And you're correct. And just like we don't have a lot of standards in dietary supplements like you would in other regulated industries. Certified Medical Practitioner or Certified Quality Advisor even in the quality field. But we don't have a Certified Formulator, we don't have a... there's no... So people who are product developers or formulators come from different backgrounds and some have limited knowledge in certain areas and others more broad based. But surely product development is an interdisciplinary activity where you have to be good at a lot of different things, kind of like a five tool player to really make sure you're covering all the bases.

And then the other point is the whole value chain around developing supplements is centered around, okay, here, a manufacturer wants to formulate your product for you or the marketer wants to sell your product for you, but maybe they're not always in it just for you, they're in it for themselves as well. And so it's really important to make sure you second guess every decision you make in the process of developing the product. Get other people involved to weigh in who are independent of the process. And then don't be happy with your first version, you kind of revise it and really poke at it and prod at it until it becomes something that's great.

Because there's thousands and thousands of me too, knockoff products out there. Even the knockoff products, okay, they have one ingredient different from something else, is that a meaningful differentiation? When the market is so competitive and there's so many products out there the differentiation aspect is so important. And so really making sure that your product is really differentiated, you really understand your competition and study that. So somebody has to spend time on this stuff and not just come up with a formula off the top of your head because you only have an hour to do it. Somebody really has to know and master this stuff and whether it's the brand owner or consultant of the brand owner, it's really important to have that element there.


Wilson (11:42):

Yeah. I think as we move more into functional foods and where taste and aroma is important, we're seeing all sorts of things. I was just talking to a buddy of mine who is a CEO and founder of a digital aroma company, basically the ability to map aromas. And we're talking about the possibilities that that could bring to our segment of the industry. And I think like you said, hey, I'm not a science person but part of it is really understanding who is the right person to do that job, right? You wouldn't want me to tell you how to formulate something, you want to find a formulator that understands that.

Just because I understand herbs and the herbal industry doesn't make me qualified to be a product formulation specialist. So I think that's the key, is finding the right consultant. Let's switch gears quickly. One piece of advice in an article that was great is that you share the realities of what they want to do. Whether it's what's really required for production, what are realistic timelines? What are cost structures based on the product or what you want to do? And how has COVID really impacted this and changed even how you understand this area of what the realities are? Especially because it's such a moving ball now with COVID.


Blake Ebersole (13:19):

Yeah. That's a great question too. And how we used to do things in the past maybe didn't value whether an ingredient was available immediately, for example. So accounting for ingredient lead times, it is pretty much one of the first things we're looking at in addition to safety and regulatory. When somebody says, "Oh, I want this in two to three months," you have to set the tone right then. Well, okay, whatever you're thinking it might be two to three times that. Unless all of the stars align and everything happens to be there. As you know, if you're missing one ingredient in the formula, you can't make it. So then, okay, then you are going to change the formula and take out the ingredient you don't have.

And then aligning all that with the quality testing and making sure the product is feasible and the flavoring aspect. Well shoot, you just flavored the product perfectly but now you can't get one of the ingredients, what do you do? Wait another three months? So there's a lot of encouragement towards going towards ingredients that aren't unique or proprietary. At least have a backup... a suitable backup supplier. And so I'm always encouraging people when they're doing product development, we'll get... Qualify two or three or more suitable sources for your ingredient so that you have a plan B if something doesn't work out. And whether that's the ingredient didn't pass spec or you couldn't get it or you got it in and it was the wrong thing. I mean you know all of the things that can happen in the process.


Wilson (15:02):

Yeah. What we're seeing is longer lead times as you alluded to, higher MOQs because everyone just needs a little bit more wiggle room and the resources are limited. And I'll give you an example that people just don't really think about. It's like, hey, I want to make a functional beverage in an aluminum can. Well, good luck, right? Maybe your lead time to market is two years now because there's a shortage of aluminum cans and if you, even if you find the cans there's no time on the line. And you're a small MOQ, your small order is not going to entice them.

These are the different realities that we have in the world that we didn't think about. It used to be aluminum cans? Like line 10,000, 5,000 bottles? Great. Someone will take the work, but right now everyone's stretched to Capacity. So I think it's an interesting situation in the supply chain. So I think that's something that I talk to people about every day where it's like, if you go quickly are you going to be able to replenish your inventory in a timely fashion?


Blake Ebersole (16:32):

Yeah. Especially when [inaudible 00:16:34] have visibility into whether the manufacturer actually can get the cans or whether they can... And they're telling you the whole time, yeah, yeah, no problem. But then it turns out, well they promise six weeks and it turns into 10. So there's a lot of things maybe you can do up front early on when you're designing the product that would eliminate... anticipated shortages in the future.

But I know it's been so difficult for everyone in addition to the growth of the industry and increased demand. And then you see that the best ingredients are sold out or we have to wait for harvest time then you see the flood of all these really cheap ingredients that people are using because that's all they can get. And so ingredient quality can definitely, I think, for many ingredients has decreased over the past year or two.


Wilson (17:30):

All right. On the last note I want to ask you this question, right up your expertise Ali. What are your top three tips for natural product development? Like what would you leave our audience with?


Blake Ebersole (17:46):

I would say work as hard as you can to critique every detail and every part and specifically focus on product benefit. Whether you can communicate that benefit simply and clearly on the label ideally. And what many people underestimate is the cost and expense of marketing. And so if you're doing direct to consumer through your website or you're paying out the Wazoo for Facebook ads or Instagram ads or influencers. And so you really underestimate the upfront capital that you need to start a business and start a brand.

It's not the case anywhere where you build a website and people will visit it as they come across it. You have to really do a lot of work on that side. And then being persistent is the key. Don't expect answers the first time that you reach out to someone, you got to follow up if you want the answers that you want. Question everything you get and if you don't know how to question a formula or a spec sheet from a manufacturer, question the dosage used and is there science supporting the claims.

What is science? Can we have a full text of the studies? So a lot of brand owners aren't unaware that they have due diligence here as well to meet FDA requirements to make sure that their claims are truthful and not misleading. And so really putting on your regulatory hat and don't just assign your regulatory function to your manufacturer. No, that's also on the brand owner as well.


Wilson (19:26):

Yeah. And I love your top three tips, they're great. One last thing I want to add to it is that if you're a direct to consumer custom company and that's your play, I really would recommend that you find a consultant like Blake that understands the intricacies of D2C. Because not only is your product formulation very important but your delivery format that fits within the confines of that D2C.

Because if you're off a quarter inch your shipping costs and fulfillment cost could be 20, 30, 40% more than if it was shorter by a quarter inch. Or a centimeter even, it's not even that much. So I think it's really understanding how you can get what you want, the product you want delivered in that exacting dimensions of your shipment. So Blake, thank you so much for joining us, really appreciate it, and look forward to catching up with you hopefully at expo. And we're looking forward to having you on as a guest in the future as well.


Blake Ebersole (20:35):

Yeah, that's great. Had a lot of fun Wilson and yeah. Look forward to seeing you soon. Thanks a lot.