By Professor John Hunter.
Getting any product to market is a challenge but with scientific products there are added hurdles.
If your product is in medical equipment, food & nutrition, veterinary, health etc. it will need rigorous testing and supporting evidence to gain credibility with, and confidence from potential buyers a well as meeting regulatory requirements.
After many years of research and testing my company, Tharos™, launched Equinectar®, an enzyme-enriched feed supplement for performance racehorses.
The journey from getting the science right to raising investment has been a significant challenge, and we’ve learned every step of the way.
Let me share advice based on our journey.
1. Prepare to expand your field of reference
Ideas and inspiration can come from unexpected sources. I was speaking to a journalist about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in humans, my area of focus at the time. He asked if horses suffer from IBS. I didn’t know, so I decided to investigate. I found that horses do suffer from IBS-like symptoms.
It was only by looking at horses specifically that I got the inkling that some conditions, such as IBS, may be caused by undigested starch fermenting in the large intestine. I reasoned that we could improve the digestion of starch by increasing the levels of amylase – an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates into sugars – and less fermentation would occur in the intestine.
This began our journey. My advice would be to be to look out for interesting ideas, explore the existing research and see what you find. Meet people in different areas of expertise. Crossover points often bring insight and can inspire the development of something new.
2. Invest in the science
The problem with many so-called scientific products is that they’re based on old wives’ tales. Real, solid science and clear evidence is essential. If you focus on building a company rather than getting the science right you are, to use an appropriate idiom, putting the cart before the horse. You need money to get credible scientific proof, so concentrate on that. Don’t spend it elsewhere unless you really have to, or you’ll risk running out of cash.
We were very mindful not to fall into this trap. Instead, we focused our initial investment and resources on working with some of the best specialist gut health scientists in the UK and abroad. We ran studies with a number of universities and other research institutions.
By building up a body of scientific evidence we have managed to gain greater buy-in from investors, helping us to gain more scientific backing. This led us to a position where we were confident in our products’ efficacy and had a wealth of evidence to prove it. Then we could build the wider team to launch the product to market.
3. Build credibility
Despite focusing on science, it’s still difficult to convince people of your product’s efficacy. We were a new company targeting the racehorse industry – a sector not well known for its incorruptibility. People were sceptical, especially given the significance of our results. The way we tackled this particular challenge was twofold: by working with well-respected vets and stables, and by writing and publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals.
Fortunately, the performance equine market is quite niche. We could run a presentation to vets and trainers in Newmarket, tapping into the most influential horse-racing market in one fell swoop.
We began ad-hoc trials of the product in stables and demonstrated improvements in performance and overall condition of the horses over five years, providing first-hand experience to influential market leaders.
Secondly, we wrote and published articles in peer-reviewed journals which helped us build credibility for the science.
Start with a small market where you can reach the right people. Let them see the product in action and take part in trials. Focus your writing on peer-reviewed journals for the sector. By starting with a smaller group you can gain traction faster, and then expand. If you aim too widely, you’ll need a lot of money to gain any sort of awareness and traction. So, focus on one area at a time.
4. Get expert help with patents
Particularly tricky was dealing with patents for our product. We needed the evidence before we were confident in applying for the patents, but we needed patents before we could publish any details.
So, while we were publishing in journals, we had to be very careful about what we included. Giving away our ‘special sauce’ in published papers would mean it was in the public domain and invalidate our patent applications.
My advice is to hire a good patent lawyer to help you write your patents in order to expedite the process and to advise you on what you can and can’t include in your published research.
5. Understand regulatory requirements
Every product, and especially a scientific product, needs to pass certain regulatory requirements. Medical products take the longest to process. Fortunately, Equinectar® is classified as a food supplement rather than a medical product, so the regulations are less heavy.
Regulatory approval takes time. Knowing what regulatory framework your product will fall into and how long the process should take, will help you manage your cash flow until you are approved.
This may also affect your choice of ingredients. Everything within Equinectar® is included on the Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) list, making it easier to gain regulatory approval from BETA and NOPS. If you are using any prohibited or novel ingredients in your product it could take much longer to gain approval. Consider this at the development stage.
In conclusion it is inevitably the case that when bringing a scientific product to market you will need a lot of money. Planning, budgeting, managing cash flow need to be your focus so that you can pay for specialist studies, product development, patents, lawyers, regulatory approval and your team. The hurdles may be high but they are worth jumping!
Professor Hunter is founder of Tharos, an equine health company. He wasa Consultant Physician at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, Visiting Professor of Medicine at Cranfield University, and is a recognised authority on diseases of the gut, including Crohn’s disease, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Professor Hunter has published books in this field and contributed over 150 research papers to major medical journals. He has also been a consultant to international companies including Shell, Unilever, Nutricia, Quest International and Marlow Foods. Website: www.tharos.co.uk