Get paid to eat: Research company opening Kannapolis lab
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó A product research and testing firm near the N.C. Research Campus will pay people to wash their hair, shave and even eat.
Spectrum Discovery Center, an 11,000-square-foot laboratory in the old K&W Cafeteria on Oak Avenue, pays consumers an average of $20 an hour to use products like cat litter, lotion and paper towels and then give their opinions, which Fortune 500 companies covet.
Parent company Sensory Spectrum wants to build a database of 10,000 Kannapolis area residents, people the company can call for taste tests and focus groups, president Gail Vance Civille said.
Eventually, some of these consumers could be the first to try new products developed at the nearby Research Campus.
Executives hope Spectrum will test pharmaceuticals, supplements and other health and nutrition products created at the $1.5 billion biotechnology complex in downtown Kannapolis.
The company is “actively pursuing collaboration” with some of the eight universities in Kannapolis, program director Lee Stapleton said.
Appalachian State University has talked informally with the company, said Dr. David Nieman, director of the ASU Human Performance Lab in Kannapolis.
“They say they can improve the taste and acceptance of our products,” said Nieman, whose lab specializes in creating supplements to improve health and endurance.
Many companies that work with Nieman’s lab to boost the nutritional value of their products already have in-house testers, he said.
“But over time, as we continue to formulate new products, we will take advantage of this asset on the campus,” he said of Spectrum.
Signs posted in Spectrum’s windows promise an average of $20 an hour for participating in a study. Testing should start soon.
To join the database, go to www.spectrumdiscoverycenter.com and click on “start getting paid for your opinions.”
After answering 20 to 40 questions, consumers are enrolled. They don’t get paid unless Spectrum then uses them in a study.
The company will pull from the database to create consumer groups tailored to meet clients’ needs, Stapleton said.
One client might want people with diabetes, while another could want Hispanic men.
Civille said she has clients “lined up” who want to test their products with consumers living in the Southeast, another reason she expanded her New Jersey-based company to Kannapolis.
“We have a serious commitment to this facility,” she said.
The lab includes observation rooms with two-way mirrors, a commercial kitchen, a sink room with 10 sinks, a wall of walk-in coolers and more.
A Sheltie named Maddie, a dog that belongs to vice president Judy Heylmun, greets visitors.
While consumer groups usually meet once for up to four hours, Spectrum also has trained panels.
These 12-member panels meet regularly for years. Panelists earn $8 to $12 an hour and work eight to 15 hours a week.
Two Kannapolis panels ó one for paper products and another for personal care products ó have completed 100 hours of training and are ready to start testing.
Spectrum will form a food panel this fall. Advertising for members will begin this summer.
Dottie Mullis, who owns a small art gallery in Concord, works on the paper panel, evaluating everything from paper towels to facial tissues to wet wipes.
“I love it,” said Mullis, who comes in every afternoon for a few hours. “It’s like doing a science project every day.”
Panelists are trained to do a complete sensory evaluation of a product, Mullis said.
They become “experts” in handling products and describing minute differences between one brand and another.
“We make them into machines,” Civille said.
Nikki Long lives in Kannapolis and became a panelist to supplement her income as a real estate agent.
With just a high school diploma, Long said she’s proof that people without a college degree can find work connected to the Research Campus.
“It’s given me a whole new perspective,” Long said. “I look at things differently now.”
When Civille wanted to open a lab in the South, she considered Charlotte. Then she met Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute, who encouraged her to consider Kannapolis.
She visited, staying at Research Campus founder David Murdock’s home, Pity’s Sake Lodge. Murdock owns Dole Food Co.
The chance to partner with Murdock made the decision easy, Civille said.
“This is a tremendous opportunity,” she said.
Spectrum has the chance to evaluate product concepts that are still in the exploration phase, as well as work with government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said.
In exchange, the company offers expert evaluation to universities and businesses looking for the next big nutritional product.
“If they don’t put it in their mouths, it can’t be nutritious,” Civille said. “Let us help you make it taste good.”