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Episode 246: What Goes Into Making a doTERRA Product?

In this episode we sit down with Dr. Nicole Stevens, Vice President of Clinical Research for doTERRA, and Alex DaBell, Vice President of Global Nutraceuticals and Innovation for doTERRA's R&D Department, to talk about how the R&D team and the Clinical Research team work together to bring doTERRA products to life. They'll discuss their backgrounds, the steps a product goes through before it gets released, and how you can get involved.

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Did you know that it can take years for a new doTERRA® product to get in your hands? Today we want to explore a little bit of that process.

Welcome back to Essential Oil Solutions with doTERRA: the podcast where you'll hear exciting, useful and simple everyday uses for essential oils from experts in the field.

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Today, we're excited to talk to Dr. Nicole Stephens, Vice President of Clinical research for doTERRA; and Alex Doble, Vice President of Global Nutraceuticals and Innovation for doTERRA's R&D Department, to talk about how the Research and Development team and the Clinical Research team work together to bring doTERRA products to life.


Alex and Nicole, thank you so much for being here with us today.


Yeah, it's great to be here.


Thank you.


To start off with, I want to know a little bit about each of your background. So Nicole, can you start and just tell us about your background?


Sure thing. I mean, for me, the love of science, and the love of natural products started clear back when I was a kid. My parents, you know, they were kind of on the natural product side, so I grew up a lot with it. And then, you know, I discovered science and science fairs, and I was definitely hooked.

So, through college, through graduate school, several degrees, I just wanted to study what is it about plants and their chemistry that really, you know, speaks to the human body? How are we able to use these to really better our health?

So for me, it's just kind of been this progression of interest, of discovery. And there's always something that I'm still learning, which is what I love about it.


That is incredible.

And Alex, what about you? What is your background?


Yeah, I love the science as well. I guess that's something we share in common. And of course, my favorite course in education was physiology. I love understanding how things work with the body, and chemistry--organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biochemistry. It's very interesting to me to understand how and why things work the way they do. I have a very curious mind. So, I love to try new things out. I love the outdoors, love cooking, music, so I have a very broad set of interests, and they kind of all come together in science.


Absolutely. And what I get from all of that is you're both very smart and very educated.

Now, Alex, how did you get into the world of specifically Essential Oil Development.


Like Nicole, I love natural products, so I have a lot of background in the chemistry side of how things are working. And when it comes to product development, it's kind of something I stumbled across, getting into career. In transitioning from education into career, I found a way to merge that scientific background into product development.

And so that kind of started with just natural products, in general; botanical ingredients, vitamins, minerals, omega oils. And then since, I have learned more about essential oils, also of botanical origin, of course. And so, figuring out, again, the curiosity there, figuring out how these can play together, the essential oil components and the non-oil components, and really, specifically with doTERRA, leveraging that full palette that we have access to.


That is so interesting, the journey to get there.

And Nicole, what about you on the research side of things? How did you get into the essential oil research?


Yeah, for me, again, this was kind of almost accidental, maybe not accidental, but fortuitous. I was in graduate school and interested in studying natural products and my original project was going to be kind of an ethnobotanical survey of plants over in Oman. I was so excited and I was all set, and it just so happened that I was supposed to leave right after September 11th happened. And they shut down all the travel for the university. And, of course, I was devastated. I had lost my project.

And it just so happened that my professor had this little box, this dusty little box of essential oils on the back of his desk. They had been extracted and someone gave them to him and he had no idea what to do with them. And he's like, "Okay, here, have a project."

So I got to figure out what they were, first of all, because he didn't even really know, and what they were made of, and their chemistry. And then we had a really great cell culture lab so we could put these essential oils with different types of cells, see how they responded, see what happened.

Honestly, I was a little bit surprised—a lot surprised—because they smelled like perfume. I didn't expect them to do anything really, other than smell good, but they were amazing. They were very active on the cellular level and it surprised me to realize that these delicious-smelling, essential oil extracts were so powerful. And so that kind of started me on this journey.

This was back a long time ago, longer than I like to think about, but it started me on this journey of researching: they're doing this on a cellular level—what happens now when it's on the human level. We're a lot more complicated, there's a lot more systems involved when you're putting it in people, compared to just in a petri dish. So, I like to understand both sides of it. We get a picture of what's happening when we're looking at essential oils and petri dishes, but then we really like to understand what's happening, like Alex mentioned, with the physiology of a human.

So, I kind of have been on both sides of that research spectrum, you know, looking at the single cell, then looking at the complex interactions of humans, where we kind of are looking now with our clinical research at doTERRA. So, it's been interesting and we certainly do both types of research still. They're both important.

But it was really fun to kind of start out clear back then, a couple of decades ago, when not much was known and looking at how much now we know, and how much still there is to learn, it makes me very excited to be in this space.


Wow. And we all love those little fortuitous accidents that lead us where we need to be.

Now, I think Research and Development, people know a lot about on a very broad overview, can you tell us what a day in the life looks like for your individual teams?

And Nicole, we'll have you go first.


Sure, yeah. Our team . . . it's funny, there's that little meme of, "This is what my mom thinks I do, and this is what my friends think I do, and this is what I actually do," it's kind of like that. I think in some ways, you know, we do have our lab coats and we're looking very official for part of the day when we're taking samples. But for a lot of the time, we're reading articles and we're writing protocols and publications and things like that. So for us, it's kind of a good mix, I think, of working in the lab, gathering our samples, being what you might think of as a scientist, with the coat and the goggles and all these things.

But then there's a lot of background that people may not know. For each clinical trial that we do, there's hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents that we have to write. We need to write our protocols and our informed consent, and we have to write all the regulatory documents that go with it. So, you know, for anyone thinking about this type of research, it's important to have writing skills.

I talked to high school students sometimes, and college students, and they ask us, "What do you need?" Well, you need to know how to write and you need to know how to read publications, too. So we do a lot of both of those things.

We also meet with other teams. We meet with our Regulatory teams, we have an ethics board that we meet with to make sure that we're doing our research very ethically, and by the book--by all the rules and laws that we have to follow. We do meet with our Product Development teams very often to make sure that we're researching the right formulas and we're looking at the right endpoints.

We meet with our Safety teams to make sure that we're using the right dosages and the right formats and testing them at the right times of day and all these kinds of things. So, it's a lot to coordinate. As we go through our days, it varies a little bit of what we're doing, but we are definitely busy every single day, and excited because we always have new projects that are coming up.



And Alex, for your team on the development side of the product, what does that look like for you?


Yeah, it's a lot of fun. Every day brings new adventures, a lot of unknowns, and as we tackle those unknowns, there's a lot of curiosity and discovering new things. Like Nicole mentioned with her team, we're collaborating with the Clinical Research team, we're collaborating with a Regulatory team, with our Operations team, and with our Product Marketing teams.

There's a lot of coordination and collaboration across the entire company, and that's one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job and my team, is we get to work with a lot of amazing people and it keeps it very interesting. We do have some time that we spend at the bench in the lab putting samples together and things like that, but we spend a lot of time reading articles, studying ingredients, meeting with ingredient suppliers, figuring out the composition of an ingredient. We need to know what is the bioactive compound that we're really targeting in a specific product. And can we spec that in on a on a finished product specification to support a label claim, to support a specific benefit for that product?

So there's a lot of stitching things together to make sure everything lines up correctly so that when our product comes to life, there aren't any missing gaps. It's always so incredible to see the depth and the time that is taken to make each and every one of these products that we have in our home, that we use every day, and that we probably take for granted a little bit. We don't know the research and the time and development that was spent.


It's so amazing. You both mentioned that you collaborate together—your teams often work together during this process.

Alex, what does that look like on the development side to work with the Research department?


Yeah. We need to begin with the end in mind, right? So, we will visit together early on (the Development team and the Research team) to figure out from a product position: what are the benefits that this product should deliver and how are we going to verify that it is delivering those benefits? And this goes to, as Nicole mentioned, some of the endpoints that we look at from a research perspective, making sure that the formula for each product includes those specific details, whether it's an active compound, whether it's the dose format that it's delivering at the right location in the body for the intended benefit.

So, we need to have it basically created on paper from start to finish before we can actually get to physical creation.


And Nicole, do you have anything to add on what that looks like from the Research side, working with Development?


Yeah, I echo what Alex said. We love collaborating early on so that we really have this vision for what we want the product to be and what we want it to do. And each step along the way, we're collaborating. We're making sure that the contents of the product, as well as the delivery format: what type of capsule, or softgel or stick pack, or whatever it is, is in line with what we want our user experience to be, and what we want the clinical trial to be like.

So, it's been really great. Over the last however long we've been doing clinical research years, we've gotten a chance to really think about, if we were to design a trial about a product that did this, what would it look like? And it's really been empowering to be able to start right at the beginning and like Alex said, design with the end in mind, so that when we get to the trial, we're already kind of simulating what our users, what our Wellness Advocates and people around the world will be experiencing when they use this product. And we are finding a lot of what we expect, which is good because that's what you want.

You want to go into it kind of understanding what you're looking at. But then there's always amazing stuff that we kind of find along the way too. It's so exciting for us to be able to work together in this way, and we feel like it creates better, stronger doTERRA products.


I absolutely agree.

Now, Alex, you mentioned that some of these products take a while. Could you give us a rough estimation of how long it takes from an idea to people being able to buy the product?


Yeah, too long. A lot of times it's just simply too long.

As you've heard today, a little bit about all of the different things that go into the development and the research on each of our products, some of our products are simpler than others, just because they contain fewer ingredients. It's a little easier to put them together because of the delivery format. Some of them are easier to manufacture.

We need to make sure that the product is dissolving, for example, appropriately—if we're going to be absorbing the nutrients and realizing their benefits, then they need to actually be digested appropriately. So, there's various hurdles that come into play. We need to have stable products that are not going to fall apart in a bottle, so stability is a piece, as well. General timeline, you know, it's not uncommon to have a couple of years that we're working on a specific project. Sometimes it's much longer than that, actually.


Wow. And Nicole, on your side of it, the research side of it, how long does your team have with those products before they launch?


That's a good question. Kind of like what Alex was alluding to, there's really different timelines, depending a little bit on the product and depending a little bit on the clinical research design. So, just like some products are simpler, some trials are simpler than others. Those timelines are a little bit shorter. When we're doing our full-scale, large, long-term studies, these can take several years to be able to do.

For the most part, we like to be able to work a few years ahead of when a product actually launches so that we can make sure we've worked out the bugs: we've got a great delivery system, we've got some awesome data to back it up from a really good trial—sometimes two or three. And so for us, it varies anywhere between a couple of months to multiple years.

So, it's a lot of fun. It's different each time we get to have that process.


That's incredible. And Alex, I think probably a lot of people wonder, when they see new products come out, where do the ideas for new products come from?


All over. Simply, they come from all over.

They come from just our colleagues—people that we work with have ideas that we share with each other all the time. They come from our Wellness Advocates, they come from walking down the aisle of the grocery store and you just have an idea from something that you saw. We meet with manufacturing partners and ingredient suppliers literally from all over the world, and we'll talk with them about different ideas as well.

So, we get ideas from all over the place, and it's always fun to figure out what fits, what doesn't fit. How can maybe we modify something to fit better?


Yeah. And Alex and I both talked about that we are very keen to the science as well. So, we're constantly reading papers of what other researchers around the world are doing and we're looking at what they're interested in. We'll sometimes see trends that are aligning with a nutritional ingredient or a new botanical product and we'll think: this is something that we at least want to kind of look into and see if this is a space that fits with the doTERRA vision.

So, we're definitely reading a lot of papers and looking at a lot of the other scientific conferences and trends that way also.


I love that. I think the best ideas come when we open ourselves up a little bit to the world and what everyone else is doing.

Now, Nicole, you mentioned earlier one of the skills to be successful in this position is writing. What are some of the other things that you would tell someone who's interested in looking into the world and joining the world of essential oil science?


Oh, yes, definitely don't skimp on the reading and writing. These are two just very basic skills that scientists need to have.

I would say be curious too. This is something that I try and teach my kids: be curious about the world around them, to look and ask why and then think about, well, how could I answer that question? So I would encourage people to approach any of their education with that kind of curiosity. What can I get out of this subject?

When I was going through my schooling, I was trained in how to do the scientific method: ask a question, gather evidence, things like this. But I didn't necessarily have the experience of coming up against failure and having to try again and again and again. But this is an important part of science. So I will tell anyone who is interested in coming into this field, be open to trying again and trying again. It's okay. We don't always get it right the first time. What you see is the end result, but what we see is the back end and there's a lot of trial and error to be had.

So yeah, don't be afraid to fail a little bit and then try again and make it better. This is something you can't learn from school. It's a good life experience.

And we do have interns come through our departments and it's something that they kind of come up against hard sometimes, too, that it's not a linear process. What we talk about our development process or our clinical trial process is very convoluted sometimes and it's a good thing. I feel like it makes us stronger. It makes us more open to other ideas that come through. So, get out there, try new things, be okay if you fall flat on your face, just get back up. It's okay.

But, definitely all the sciences, if you're curious about certain kinds of science. I have a background in Botany. I've got a Master's degree in Botany, my Doctorate's in Biochemistry, I'm doing a second Master's in Public Health. All of these things, not necessarily like overlapping sciences, but all kinds of science are bringing us to new points of view. So, get out there and be curious about stuff.

Math: I hate to say it, but you do need some math sometimes. Statistics, algebra, you can use it. My kids are always saying, I don't use this, I'm never going to use this. I promise you, if you get in there and you do your math classes and you want to become a scientist, you'll actually use it. You'll be like, "Yay! I didn't learn this for nothing."


Yeah, absolutely. The curiosity is such a big part of what we do. We've also mentioned there's a lot of collaboration and so being able to work well with other people, being patient and resilient. As Nicole mentioned, things don't always work out. And when you're doing something that's never been done, it's like inventing the light bulb. You'll say, "Oh, there's 99 ways to fail," but really, it's like 99 ways that you learned that didn't work.

And so being resilient, being patient, working well with other people, being curious, these are all valuable skills that you can develop.


I absolutely love that attitude of being curious, and being resilient. That's so fantastic.

I think a lot of people listening have heard you mention getting ideas for products or clinical trials and have been wondering, how can I be involved? How could I be involved in the research or the development, and what would you say to that, Alex?


Yeah, we love to visit with people. We're lucky to be able to engage with a lot of our customers or Wellness Advocates at different events: we have Conventions and Leaderships and things like that. One of the favorite experiences is to hear from people directly, new ideas for products or for research. We also hear from people through our Product Support group. They have follow up questions about products that we've launched, and we'd love to hear from people that way. That engagement, even before product launches, but after a product launches is super valuable for us.



And on the research side of things, Nicole, what would you say?


I would say, first of all, come see us at Convention. Alex mentioned being able to talk to you, to understand your needs, to understand how you use our products. It may seem like a little thing, but it's really important for us. We want to be able to support how our people are using the products. And so when people come and talk to us at our booths at Convention or stop us as we're walking around at Convention, we really love to get that feedback. So, come say, "Hi" if ever you see us at Convention or walking around the halls of doTERRA corporate, anywhere like that.

For us, on the clinical side, we actually actively recruit people to come be involved in our trials. And we would love for people who qualify for different trials to come actually join us in some of this research. We are working with the team who's doing the MetaPWR challenge to try and collect the data from that challenge on the back end. So, if you're doing that challenge, we'd love to get have your data be part of that project. We're opening some new trials about various parts of the MetaPWR kit and some of the new products that are coming out, some of our products that are our standards that we're continuing to study in the back end.

I don't know what the timeline is exactly, but we are working on revamping a website that will gather together all of the clinical research information, so, trials that are active, trials that are coming up, publications that have been completed, a little bit of info about our team and other ways to get involved. So, keep your eyes open for that and I think there will be some kind of announcement when that's ready, but it will likely be on the Prime Meridian website because we are considered Prime Meridian Clinical Research. So, watch for that. It's going to be exciting.


Absolutely. That is so exciting. And will give so many people an opportunity to be a part of this amazing Research and Development process.

Nicole and Alex, thank you so much for being here with us today. We've loved learning more about what you both do.


Thank you so much, it's been great.


My pleasure.

Thanks for joining us and congratulations on living a healthier lifestyle with essential oils. If you want to try any of the products you learned about, click on the link in the episode description or find a Wellness Advocate near you to place an order today.

And remember, if you liked what you heard today, rate review and subscribe wherever you listen.

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