Health research director in the hot seat: The non-stop world of R&D

By Nikki Hancocks contact

- Last updated on GMT

Dr Don Cox
Dr Don Cox

Related tags: Probiotics, Immune health, Research

As consumers become increasingly sceptical about health claims big brands are having to constantly fight to prove their health benefits time and time again, according to the R&D director for global ingredients giant Kerry.

Don Cox, R&D director for the ProActive Health category at Kerry, has been working with functional ingredients since he graduated with a PHD in 1991 and has been building clinical research into the immune health ingredient Wellmune, originally owned by US company Biothera Inc, for the past 15 years.

This ingredient was acquired by Ireland based taste and nutrition company Kerry in 2015 - its first foray into functional ingredients. Since then the company has also acquired the globally recognised Ganeden probiotic​ company and combined the two into a functional ingredients division called ProActive Health, focused on building research as well as creating and acquiring new functional ingredients and technologies.

Dr Cox says Kerry has changed vastly since he first joined the company as it works to increase its input in the functional food and drinks arena.

“It didn’t have a history of providing efficacy support for specific ingredients before whereas now it has a full research programme and now other companies come to Kerry to ask how to design and undertake a clinical research study,” ​he tells NutraIngredients.

Discussing the biggest challenge Kerry faces when it comes to its functional ingredients division, Dr Cox points out that the best way to ensure your product stands out from the functional food crowd is to ensure it is backed by scientific evidence showing a proven health benefit. 

But building awareness of the efficacy of products which work on a preventative basis is difficult, he says, adding that this is even more the case in this increasingly sceptical society.

“We have something like 15 or 16 clinical studies​ published now showing the efficacy of Wellmune but it’s a constant fight to gain credibility.

“Because we are a company, we have our credibility questioned.”

He adds that there is a somewhat grey area around how efficient immune health and probiotics are because they are preventative means, as opposed to cures. And because of the lack of black and white answers, there is a constant influx of negative press with which to contend.

“With these sorts of ingredients there will be negative press and so we are constantly trying to conduct research to help support our ingredients and demonstrate they have efficacy on specific areas of health.”

With the probiotics and preventative supplements markets growing in size and competition becoming more fierce, the researcher says the best way to stand out from the crowd is by conducting good clinical research and creating a message that resonates with consumers.

Risky business

Talking about the growing importance of acquisitions and partnerships within the health and wellness space, Dr Cox points out that it is often less of a risk for a small startup to build a new innovation and this is why many big companies are frequently buying into startup companies.

“I think a lot of innovation comes from risk takers. Small companies, entrepreneurs and academic institutions do things that large companies are more hesitant to do because of the financial implications of taking a risk," ​he explains.

“An entrepreneur will spread the risk across a wide spectrum of investors who can afford to take that risk. Whereas, the risks are harder to take where you’re in a company where you are routinely measured.

“So, often the innovations come from small startups and Kerry has acquired numerous startups.”

And he says its his ability to meet and work with leading scholars and innovators from across the industry that gets him out of bed in the morning.

"Working with external researchers and companies is a very important part of business nowadays and it's what allows us to grow."

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