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Ara Katz has big dreams for bugs. The microbial science company she co-founded, Seed Health, hopes to send microbes into space to figure out if the conditions there allow the microbes to depolymerize plastic, or break it down into its original elements.
On its own, scientists estimate plastic takes about 400 years to break down. If Seed’s research is successful, it could be a part of a solution for the 8 million tons of plastic estimated to end up in the ocean each year, which affects more than 700 species of animals.
It’s the latest idea for a way to harness the power of the microbiome, that universe of microorganisms that includes viruses (the smallest), bacteria, protozoa, fungi, algae, amoebas, and slime molds — communities of which exist alongside and inside humans. “I always say, once you understand the microbiome, it’s like you’ve seen the matrix,” said Katz, whose 30-employee Los Angeles-based company has a bevy of high-profile scientists as advisors. A serial e-commerce entrepreneur, she co-founded the company after becoming interested in the science while breastfeeding her son. “You can literally never go back.”
She is not the only one mesmerized. Relatively unsophisticated probiotic nutritional supplements have existed for decades, but a wave of startups rooted in advanced microbiology are now hitting the commercial market, based on Crunchbase data and other reports. Two design custom microbes: Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, which has raised more than $797 million, and Emeryville, California-based Zymergen, which has raised more than $874 milliion. Another is Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Evelo Bioscience, which has raised more than $281 million and develops single strains of microbes to treat diseases via the small intestine, according to its web site. At the same time, continuing research and new public-private partnerships are driving advances and the market. For instance NASA programs offer private companies a chance to do R&D in space — though Katz wouldn’t share exactly how she aims to get microbes to space.
Launched in 2018, Seed Health has developed and sells a probiotic pill, which it sells on a subscription basis for $50 a month from its website. Katz started the company alongside co-founder Raja Dhir, a life sciences entrepreneur who leads the scientific research side of the company, after she became inspired by the microbiome inside humans when she was pregnant with her now five-year-old son. But probiotic pills are only the beginning of Katz’s ambitions, which range from outer space plastics research to saving the honey bee — to inspiring a worldwide community to fall in love with the worlds of bacteria that exist inside each of us.
Seed’s investors include San Francisco venture capital firms Founders Fund and 8VC. It’s also garnered the attention of celebrities, such as actress Cameron Diaz, who recently interviewed Katz about Seed Health and microbiomes on an instagram livestream that garnered over 1 million views. In February, Seed Health announced that it had acquired Auggi, which had developed machine learning technologies to analyze digestive health. Auggi used crowdsource data from Seed Health’s call for people to submit photos of their poop, which Katz’s team dubbed its #giveashit initiative.
The study of microbiomes, microscopic communities of organisms, is a rather new science — it’s only become widely accepted within this century, said Andrea Azcarate-Peril, a professor at the University of North Carolina who has been researching microbes and probiotics for more than 20 years. Recent research is investigating microbes’ connection to everything from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes. One of the key intellectual advancements was the recognition of the importance of studying microbes in communities — microbiomes. The way microbes exist together, in or out of balance, in turn affects the systems around them.
Because the science is relatively new, Azcarate-Peril said, there are some companies that aren’t particularly reliable. Sometimes, companies will claim probiotics are made of multiple strains when really they’re mostly one strain, she said, even though it’s key to have multiple strains for a probiotic to be effective. It happens because the industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, she said.
The proliferation of companies has been driven by government and foundation-supported research. By the mid-2000s, DNA sequencing costs had decreased enough for the National Institutes of Health NIH to start a 10-year, $215 million initiative to study microbial communities associated with the human body. The Obama Administration announced a National Biome Initiative in 2016, which received a $100 million funding commitment from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also invested in research into the microbiome. Foundation-funded DeepTech research has become a bigger part of the conversation in the wake of the global pandemic, as it’s clearer that a funding gap exists for companies commercializing scientific breakthroughs.
Born Out Of Breast-Feeding
Katz said she has always had a fascination with biology and how people make decisions about their health, which grew stronger after her mom died when she was a teenager. It was after becoming a mom herself, creating life herself, that her interest in the microbiome began.
Though, she is not a formally trained scientist herself. Instead, she has an extensive background in communications and entrepreneurship. She currently advises six companies and is an angel investor in California. She was also on the founding teams of companies such as online shopping platform Spring, which in 2017 had a reported valuation of $142 million before it was acquired by Shoprunner in 2018. She also co-founded e-commerce group BeachMint, which is now defunct.
As those chapters closed, she sought out a new venture. She watched the rise of wellness and noticed the lack of science in the solutions in the market. After she met Dhir, Seed Health was born, she said.
“I felt I had really waited till I found my kind of zero to one in health,” she said. “I think the microbiome is that.”
Seed Health hasn’t disclosed its own funding level, but said its subscriber base has grown by 12 times in the last two years. The company has a 13-person scientific advisory board that includes Gregor Reid, who previously served as the chair of the United Nations World Health Organization Expert Panel; Jacques Ravel, a vaginal health researcher who is also co-founder of LUCA Biologics, which stemmed from Seed; and George Church, a Harvard professor who has led a number of prominent studies, such as successfully copying woolly mammoth DNA.
Katz hopes its 24 strains will be handy in finding solutions for the aforementioned plastic problem and also the decline of honey bees and harmed coral reefs. “We’ve never thought health is human health,” Katz said. “We live in one giant carbon ecosystem.”
Reid, Seed’s chief scientist, retired last year from his professor position at Western University in London, Ontario, and runs his lab in the city at St Joseph’s Hospital Lawson Research Institute. He led a team with Seed fellow, Brendan Daisley, to research how probiotics could help honey bees.
Honey bees, which pollinate more than 100 important crops, are dying at record rates, due mainly to pesticides, disease and habitat loss. Beekeepers surveyed by the Bee Informed Partnership, a College Park, Maryland-based nonprofit tracking bee colony decline, lost about 43% of their colonies from April 2019 to April 2020, according to the group’s annual report.
Reid’s team was able to create a probiotic for bees, which beekeepers can feed to them with other nutrients they typically provide. The final result looks a bit like a pancake– a flat disk composed of strains that lower pathogens in bees. The researchers have started ground testing of the bee probiotic, called the BioPatty, in California and Canada, according to Seed’s website.
Next, Katz and her team plan to tackle stool. Seed plans to launch technology using Auggi’s AI for consumers to track their health through stool in May. Katz said it’s an important marker for health that most ignore. “Because of its stigmatization, it has been basically data that’s been flushed down the toilet for forever,” Katz said.
Communicating The Complicated
Katz’s background in communication translates to Seed’s focus on education and visual arts. Seed has two artists and a poet, whose job it is to depict Seed’s findings in a palatable way.
The company has taken a stance in educating its customers and followers on social media through Seed University, which has become a big part of the company, Katz said. On its Instagram account, it launched courses about the microbiome as a way to provide science-backed facts on a platform so rampant with misinformation.
It’s gone beyond simple courses, trying to get the attention of those uninterested in science. Seed has recruited influencers on social media to share information about the microbiome as a way to spread it to more viewers. The company has also dropped limited edition items to capture its audience’s attention.
“We always are trying to think about how you can turn education into currency,” she said. “We like to think, could you make science communication feel like a Supreme drop?”
Good science comes down to communicating it properly and widely, she said.
The pandemic has made that job easier, she said. She used to have to explain to people that microbes exist on surfaces and inside of us. More than a year into the pandemic, almost everyone recognizes that fact.
This story was changed to reflect Seed’s role in Gregor Reid’s research on probiotics for honey bees. The company helped to secure contacts and patents for the study and its findings.