Why direct-to-consumer brands are going big on scientific research

Consumer brands are donning lab coats and conducting their own clinical trials. How much does this all cost – and is it worth it?

Three Spirit is currently conducting clinical research to test the functional benefits of the ingredients used in its alcohol-free spirits. (Photo: Three Spirit)


In an effort to get even the most skeptical consumers on board, a number of brands are going all out to prove their products work, investing in expensive clinical trials and bolstering their boards and executive teams with experts.

Supplement brand Seed has been running clinical trials to find out whether its “daily synbiotic” probiotics can help Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferers. In April, it closed a $40 million Series A investment round, in part to help fund its clinical research activities. Meanwhile, smart ring brand Oura is working with the University of California San Diego to track temperature and heart rate changes during pregnancy.

Brain health brand Heights has even hired a Chief Science Officer – a role filled by Dr. Tara Swart Bieber, a neuroscientist and Oxford University graduate – while its competitor in the U.S., Elysium Health, worked with Oxford to develop its Matter brain health supplements, launched last summer.

Why are brands getting into science?

Three Spirit, a functional alcohol-free spirits brand, is currently working with University College London and the biosciences department at the University of Surrey to test the efficacy of its ingredients.

The brand’s developmental scientist Geyan Surendran says the studies will be some of the world’s first human clinical trials testing schisandra chinensis (a berry grown in China and Russia) and lion’s mane mushrooms.

“Fundamentally, we are about flavor but we’re [also] about function, and augmenting someone’s day, evening, night or social occasion,” Surendran explains. “One study we’re doing is looking at the antioxidant properties of hops, [via] urine and blood assays. We’re [also] running sleep studies on ingredients that have been used anecdotally, but never studied using rigorous methodology.”

Lemon balm hops and valerian root – which is often recommended to reduce anxiety – are two ingredients that feature in the brand’s “Nightcap” drink, and are currently being tested, Surendran says.

“We are very wary of making claims, which might sound a bit strange given [the products] we make,” Dash Lilley, Three Spirits’ cofounder says. “We find that the claims world, from a brand point of view, is full of products we don’t really want to be associated with.”

Conducting clinical research, Lilley says, enables brands to make meaningful claims. This practice is not only reassuring for customers, but it also gives brands clout among the scientific community. “That will indirectly help build our profile as a company that does the work,” Lilley says. “We’re not just looking for a quick win.”

Daye's CBD tampons have been clinically tested both to ensure safety, but also to find out just how effective they are at relieving pain. (Photo: Daye)

How much do clinical trials cost?

Daye, a four-year-old brand that sells CBD tampons, already has three clinical trials under its belt. One was to test its “Proviotics” vaginal health supplements, and two were to test the safety and pain-relieving performance of its CBD-infused tampons.

Daye teamed up with a clinical trial operator who recruited patients, conducted the studies and reviewed the data, before passing it on to regulators for their seal of approval. One of the tests on its CBD tampons asked patients to report the level of pain relief they were feeling every four hours while using the tampons, over a period of three months (or, three periods).

It’s an expensive task, but the brands say the validation is worth it. Valentina Milanova, Daye’s founder, says the brand spent over £500,000 ($708,000) on scientific research in 2020. Partnering with universities, a far cheaper option, will still set brands back by at least $17,000 per study, one brand told Thingtesting.

Milanova says that for brands bringing truly unique products to market, such spending is non-negotiable.

“It is expensive, and it’s hard to fundraise for clinical trials. Most investors would much prefer if a company could just buy products from China and spend all of their money on Facebook and Instagram ads,” she says. “[But] we exist to create genuinely novel products. We don’t just buy someone else’s product and then sell it for a profit.”

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