What do consumers want to know about dietary supplement products, and when do they want this information? These are the primary questions that drive LabDoor, a new independent service offering analytical and labeling data to help consumers make informed purchases.
Neil Thanedar, founder and CEO of LabDoor, promises the service will be quite different from what consumers have seen in the supplement space. "LabDoor's user experience much more closely resembles a startup like Yelp vs. a company like ConsumerLab, and that's a very intentional decision," he said. "We are focused on altering consumer purchasing decisions as close to the purchasing-point as possible, using consumer-friendly grades and interactive data visualization."
LabDoor reviews the most popular products in the most popular categories. Starting with existing data on labeling and clinical research, the lab takes an in-depth look at each product. It will purchase these products from major retailers and conduct its own testing for purity and review of label info for accuracy. It will also grade products on nutrition value, ingredient safety and expected efficacy. All this info is funneled into an overall grade for each product.
Consumers can access this information online and from LabDoor's mobile apponly an iOS version is available right now, but an Android version is under development, with a possible spring launch.
Consumers can access the overview for each category, as well as the rankings and testing summary for each product, but specific data results and grades on purity, safety, efficacy, nutrition and label accuracy will only be available with a premium subscription. The current price for premium subscription is $50 for one year.
The first report was posted in November 2013 and covered protein powder products. This was followed by reports on energy drinks and fish oil products. Rounding out the first five categories will be multivitamins and vitamin D products. Thanedar reported new product categories will be added to the site every month, and each product will be re-audited every 12 months. "If there are major changes within the category, or there is a high demand for additional testing of a category, we can choose to test more often," he said.
Queuing Up Products
There are three ways products end up in LabDoor's review pipeline:
1. Popular supplement categories and products are identified by total sales..
2. LabDoor's mobile and web applications are crowdsourcing toolsproducts receiving heavy search and scan traffic are tagged for expedited testing. This method will get a boost from one-click voting, which is planned for both web and mobile apps.
3. Companies can voluntarily submit their own products for a full LabDoor analysis here. While LabDoor has committed to covering all costs associated testing products chosen by LabDoor or its users, it asks companies requesting their own products for testing and certification to cover these costs themselves.
21st Century Consumer Reports
"LabDoor more closely competes with the existing methods that average consumers use to choose dietary supplements," Thanedar explained. "In our research, we've found that this includes brand advertising and packaging, Nutrition Facts labels, user reviews on sites like Amazon, and web forums like BodyBuilding.com and Reddit. We are focused on becoming more trusted, scientific, and easy-to-use as a purchasing tool than these competitors." In fact, LabDoor's list of products reviewed and graded will include a Buy Now link to Amazon.com, wherever applicable.
LabDoor is not trying to generate sensationalist at the supplement industry's expense, Thanedar assured. "The point of LabDoor isn't to drive page views through scare tactics." he said. "If that was a viable long-term business strategy, local and national newspapers and television outlets, which love this style of reporting, would be making a lot more money." In fact, he said there are many great supplements on the market, and his tests have made him and his family new fans and users of certain products, including fish oil.
"Our job is to collect real scientific data, analyze and compare products based on ingredient safety and projected efficacy, and provide high-quality brands a venue to compete on real quality instead of marketing hype," he added.
Transparency is a major component of the LabDoor mission. Thanedar explained with all of the recent media negativity about supplements, it's easy to misinterpret the problem as consumers vs. manufacturers, but it's truly consumers and good manufacturers vs. bad manufacturers. "Dietary supplements can be an amazing force for good health; however, the lack of trust and transparency in the industry has caused many consumers to stay away from these products completely," he said.
The company promises its analytical reports will be clear, with testing methods and results provided. "We have honestly learned a lot from prior interactions between the supplement industry and Consumer Reports," Thanedar noted. "LabDoor's mission of trust and transparency doesn't end with consumers, and we are open to science-based conversations with all manufacturers."
The LabDoor Process
1. Identify popular supplement categories and products based on available market and sales data.
Within each category, LabDoor looks at product label data for each product. This includes names, pictures UPC and manufacturing information. The lab has collected such data for more than 30,000 dietary supplements.
2. Gather data on clinical research.
Clinical data relative to each reviewed product is also analyzed, based on a curated set of more than 10,000 clinical safety and efficacy studies investigating short- and long-term effects of supplements or ingredients. As part of its ongoing effort to utilize only the most relevant research, newly published studies will be analyzed by the LabDoor team for quality and strength of design (e.g., testing methods, sample size, etc.) and reproducibility before using the data in any product category review.
3. Perform lab analyses on selected products.
After reviewing product and research data, LabDoor purchases products from the same top retailers consumers use. The lab team then reverse engineers products to generate real data. This process separates the ingredients using physical, solvent and chromatographical methods. Next, the team confirms the identity of each ingredient, reflecting techniques used in FDA-registered pharmaceutical labs. For this work, the lab uses reference materials from compound libraries and validated methods from various sources, including the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).
4. Grade each product.
The lab calculates the relative quality of each product using proprietary algorithms. The end result is a report card and category rank for each product reviewed. Each product is graded for up to five subcategories: label accuracy, manufacturing purity, ingredient safety and projected efficacy. These are combined into one total grade (A through F).
For manufacturers, LabDoor will offer a seal that will be awarded for high quality as demonstrated in performance results from LabDoor active ingredient and contaminant assays. Thanedar noted LabDoor is also looking to work with supplement retailers, especially those who pride themselves on selling high-quality, pure, and eco-friendly products. "We're actively pursuing any avenue that will bring real, accurate product quality and safety data to consumers at the purchasing-point," he said.
Investing in Consumer Health
Thanedar comes from the world of non-consumer lab testing. For many years, he ran Avomeen Analytical Services, an FDA-registered, cGMP-compliant and DEA-licensed laboratory. "We did a lot of work on methods development for pharmaceuticals," he said.
The data generated by Avomeen about supplement and pharmaceutical safety reached only manufacturers and FDA eyes. Thanedar wanted to do more for the consumer public, which had limited access to valuable safety and efficacy data. Realizing the number one source for consumer information on products is Amazon reviews, he thought there had to be a better way.
After building the bones of LabDoor for several months, Thanedar and his team received a boost from Rock Health, an incubator for health-related startups. Then came a random chance to talk with Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks pro basketball team and well-known business investor recently featured in the ABC show "Shark Tank." After hearing about Thanedar's lab, Cuban seized the opportunity to invest in LabDoor.
Rock Health and Cuban offered regular guidance, and LabDoor partner Mayo Clinic has served as a sounding board. "Mayo Clinic is the number one health brand consumers trust," Thanedar said.
Seed funding for LabDoor, from all sources, reached around USD $1.3 million after 18 months of fundraising, which helps pay for testing and marketing, as well as employee salariesLabDoor has about 10 employees, including both technology and analytical lab positions. However, the goal is to have consumer subscriptions cover a majority of operating costs. Licensing content and non-product advertisements are also expected to contribute revenue. LabDoor may also see dollars from its link share with Amazon.com.
New Doors to Open
Looking ahead, Thanedar has LabDoor on a course of reviewing 50 products per month and hopes to increase that to 100 per month by sometime in 2014. He said a good chunk of the original vision for LabDoor would be met if it can cover the number of supplements sold in GNC stores, which carries around 1,500 SKUs.
Beyond numbers, Thanedar is looking at ways to personalize LabDoor. "There is a global movement for personalization," he noted. One idea is to give users the option of having rankings customized to their needs.
On the analytical side, he is considering ways to incorporate good manufacturing practice (GMP) information into dietary supplement rankings. "[GMPs] were built into an early version," he explained, noting his team has tested such a system, but it hasn't been finalized.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a recent focus of consumer advocates who have tried, thus far in vain, to get mandatory GMO labeling of foods into the law books at the state and federal levels. Thanedar has not yet developed a way to incorporate GMO information, but he aid, "No part of testing products scares us."
His main goal is be the best product information resource for consumers purchasing dietary supplement and related products. "Long-term, our vision for LabDoor sees us transforming from a passive source for product quality and safety information to a dynamic dashboard for your medicine cabinet."