Business collaboration between research and industry lies at the heart of new drug development. The earliest drug discoveries were of organic origin. But soon, the drug industry found it made business sense to shift focus and look for a more stable source. With natural products, there were challenges in the consistency and reliability of raw materials supply. Chemicals were a better alternative. Soon, these became the main source of all new and existing drugs.

This shift occurred even though natural products-based nutrition and medicine have a history of over 5000 years. This does not mean that the world’s interest in natural products has waned.

Dozens of scientists across the globe are working on natural products. High-impact scientific journals have numerous papers documenting experiments that present natural products’ positive and negative effects on living organisms. Many trials have validated natural product-based ancient remedies too. However, most scientific literature has rarely gone beyond animal trials. There are too few cases of human trials that have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of natural products.

The hunt for natural products based next blockbuster drug continues to evade science. The pharmaceutical industry has financial and technical strength but has not shown much inclination to invest in biological products-based research.

The natural products industry is too fragmented and small to step in and fill the breach. To get an industry perspective on the subject, I got around to chatting with Paul Willis, CEO of Cypress Ingredients, a US-based ingredient supplier.

Cypress Ingredients’ emphasis is on manufacturing science-based and supported functional food ingredients. High Selenium yeast is the main product of Cypress Ingredients. This company has an eighteen-year-old partnership with the Division of Cancer Prevention and the US National Cancer Institute. The institute has conducted trials on the high Selenium yeast product. These have shown that high Selenium yeast protects the body against cancer.

Cypress Ingredients has built a robust marketing support infrastructure too. Two of the largest functional food industry ingredient suppliers – AIDP and Cornell Brothers, are distributing their products not just in North America but also in high-growth markets of Asia. Despite developing a science-based ingredient product and a decent marketing arrangement, I would not put the company in the category of high-growth businesses.

Functional foods and products based on natural products have been known to protect the body effectively. However, these ingredients must be consumed in sufficiently large quantities for effective production. These should also be bio-available for them to be effective. Paul claims his product Selenium is not just science-based but also bio-available in quantities that make them effective protection against cancer.

Still, mainstream modern society prefers a doctor over an alternative medicine physician. We pop a vitamin, an antacid, a pain killer, all of chemical origin, without thinking twice. And when it comes to natural products-based medicine, USFDA only permits their use as functional foods. But many of us prefer organic food over GMO food. We like natural product-based fragrances and body care products over ones of chemical origin. We are taught from childhood to eat a lot of veggies with fiber.

Why is the natural products industry so fragmented and full of small companies? Why are big pharmaceutical and healthcare firms unwilling to commit resources to biological products-based drug research and development? To get insights and answers to these questions, I interacted with clinicians, natural medicine healers, doctors, and the industry.

These discussions reveal reluctance and intellectual disbelief in the other’s product. The conservative mindset of big pharma and the rich neighbor’s attitude to a poor cousin is not helping either. This is nothing surprising or unique to this industry. Behemoth multinationals are great executors and marketers of products and services.

Disruptive advancements and growth in healthcare have come from genomics, biotech, and single molecule-producing startups. Once a product is promising, the startup becomes a target for acquisition. The cycle of innovation and consolidation thus goes on hand in hand.

The natural products industry requires an innovator and disruptor. The industry probably needs big brother pharmaceutical industry encouragement and financial support to kick start this cycle. But is there interest in such business collaboration?

I asked Paul if big pharmaceutical companies have shown interest in the natural ingredients industry in general and his company and his science-based products. I was encouraged when he mentioned the name Bayer. Bayer attended some events organized by him. They were enthusiastic participants in scientific deliberations.

This is probably an early sign of things to come. The pharmaceutical industry should be willing to collaborate. This trend needs to be encouraged, and opportunity exploited. Multidisciplinary content providers like Informa group can play an important role in bringing the two major stakeholders in the healthcare space – natural products and pharmaceutical industry providers on a single platform.

Industry associations like the American Herb Products Association and other industry bodies will also have to play their part. Discussions and exchange of ideas between the two will help build bridges and trust.

The world is waiting for the next big discovery in healthcare. This will probably come from a natural product. Once that happens, the funding tap will be opened, innovators will jump in, and regulators will work overtime to make regulations conform to this next disruption. I am bullish on the future. Each of us must pitch in with our bit to make it happen.

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Sudhirahluwalia, Inc