A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as any barstool philosopher will tell you. In the case of Sabinsa, the journey to becoming one of the world's largest and most diversified purveyors of herbal ingredients started with a step backward, and another sideways.
Sabinsa's founder, Dr. Muhammed Majeed, didn't set out to build a multinational company founded on Ayurvedic products; he wanted to be a pharmacist. After studying in India, Majeed temporarily left his young family behind and worked in the R&D division of companies like Pfizer while continuing his Ph.D. program in Industrial Pharmacy at St. Johns University, New York.
"It was at a time when this nation and even the best of companies could not see past color, and even as an educated man, he struggled to advance his career," said Shaheen Majeed, Dr. Majeed's son and the marketing director of Sabinsa. Seeking greater opportunity, Dr. Majeed founded his own pharmaceutical company with partners, but took his step backward when that deal went sour and fell apart amid recriminations.
In the interregnum, contacts approached Majeed for contract-formulation help with new products. "One thing most people don't know about Dr. Majeed, he knows how to run a tablet and capsule machine better than anyone in the game," said Shaheen Majeed.
As it happened, many of these were natural products, and Dr. Majeed, whose original thought with Sabinsa was to manufacture and market drugs coming off patent, took the fork in the road that led away from pharmaceuticals toward a leading position within the natural-products industry.
From the beginning, then, Sabinsa took a pharmaceutical approach to the development of new products. Sabinsa was science-based before the rest of the industry admitted how important that is, according to Shaheen Majeed. In addition, he said, Sabinsa has invested heavily over the years in research and development, pioneering many ingredients or developing new delivery methods for existing ingredients rather than taking a me-too approach.
One of Sabinsa's earliest herbal ingredients, Boswellin, is still a workhorse in the company's stable of offerings. Boswellin, a standardized extract of the gum of the Indian Frankincense tree, has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine and is marketed as an anti-inflammatory joint-health ingredient. This ingredient has been around since 1991, but as an example of the company's culture of innovation, Sabinsa recently developed a high bulk density version, which reduces the 'fluffiness' of the ingredient, meaning less loss in handling and suitability for loading into smaller capsules.
But that culture of innovation doesn't come cheap. Over the years, Shaheen Majeed said, Sabinsa has developed patented ingredients and has vigorously defended those patents, all in an effort to afford that investment. Sabinsa's offerings are often near the top of the price range for certain ingredients, but this is by design, Shaheen Majeed said.
"Customers are constantly asking us, 'What is the latest from Sabinsa?' — well good thing for our customers, we are continuously working at our R&D centers, either creating the next new ingredient or working on ways to improve existing ingredients. The few extra dollars that are asked of from our customers is to ensure this," he said. Sabinsa, Shaheen Majeed said, was from the start ahead of the curve on verifying the sources and purity of its raw materials and has taken further steps by moving toward vertical integration. Over the last eight or nine years, the company has developed a broad and deep network of relationships with growers in many parts of India. Sabinsa works with farmers to foster best practices, and gains security both in price and supply as a result. In addition, the company has recently branched out with growing operations elsewhere in Asia, to stabilize its supply situation both from regulatory and climatic standpoints.
As he looks over Sabinsa's history, now well into its third decade, Shaheen Majeed said he has another interpretation of the company's familier "S" logo.
"To me, Sabinsa is Solid. It's solid in its relationship to its customers, to its farmers; it's solid in its commitment to excellence in every aspect of the ingredient, from sourcing it, to developing it; it's a solid company that will be there for its customers."