Q&A: Naveen Jain, CEO, Viome
This year, SKS is joined by experts and leaders in foodtech, including Viome CEO Naveen Jain. We connected with him to discuss Viome’s mission and how they’re tackling personalized nutrition.
What are the unique challenges your company is tackling within the foodtech or smart kitchen space?
70% of the immune system is in the gut microbiome, which we can train and balance. There has been so much research in the past few years to support this, while the medical world is still 20 years behind the science. Research shows that chronic diseases like depression, anxiety, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and many types of cancer are proving to be linked to the condition of an individual’s microbiome.
At this stage, I see fewer and fewer people who still do not get the importance of the gut microbiome. It’s the way you test it and interpret it that makes a difference. Without an ability to test RNA, all other microbiome companies use DNA and only tell you who’s there. We tell you what the microbial activities and functions are. Without it you cannot see what your microbes are doing, and without this understanding, how do you know what action to take?
The innovative technology created by Viome and exclusively developed at the Los Alamos Lab of National Security offers unprecedented visibility into the human body. It allows the teams at Viome to create a unique functional profile of each patient’s active microbiome by studying gene expression on a systems level. All this is possible because we use proprietary metatranscriptomic technology that allows for analysis of pathway activity levels and combines that with phenotype and machine learned sample profiling to offering best-in-class, unparalleled insights and personalized recommendations.
There is a unique constellation of important factors here that make it possible. I am sure people thought of it sooner, how nice it would be to stabilize and sequence RNA from stool samples, but only our methodology allows to do so successfully in a home-test setting. People have also thought about the importance of systems biology types of integrative analysis of microbiome data, but without expression levels, no pathway analysis or functional insights were possible. In the AI field people may have also thought of deriving predictions from many types of omics data, but never have they had a chance to align with all the other factors and the functional medicine field to really connect all these dots meaningfully and in a way that can help people today. So, it’s the thought of connecting all these disparate but important thoughts from different fields that made Viome something absolutely new and special across all these domains.
What is Viome?
Viome is a company redefining health through personalized nutrition based on individual biology. Through artificial intelligence, Viome discovers what foods and supplements are ideal for each individual based on their gut microbiome in order to achieve optimal health. We use advanced technology developed for National Security at the Los Alamos National Lab and we are developing a therapeutics platform to prevent and reverse chronic diseases using food as a medicine based on functional analysis of gene expression. Our intelligence platform transforms powerful insights into actions by delivering precise, personalized nutrition recommendations for healthy living.
What was an important “origin story” moment in creating Viome?
As I was finishing up my last moonshot venture, I began thinking about two other massive problems worth solving: education and healthcare. With so much research pointing to the fact that many chronic diseases are rooted within the gut, I wanted to know why there wasn’t more being done to understand this connection on a deeper level. I launched Viome in October 2016 to further explore the concept of making illness optional and healthcare accessible to all. Viome uses advanced technology developed for National Security at the Los Alamos National Lab to analyze all of the genes expressed by the gut microbiome in order to assess if the body is converting the foods we consume into helpful nutrients or harmful toxins. Our artificial intelligence platform transforms these powerful insights into actions by delivering precise, personalized nutrition recommendations for a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
What is Viome doing differently? What are you disrupting, innovating, or inventing?
Current scientific literature clearly shows that all chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, obesity, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, and even cancer are likely caused by chronic inflammation. They have become the biggest killers in the U.S. and cost our economy an estimated three trillion dollars each year. We now understand that these diseases are really just symptoms of a deeper underlying cause. Equally surprising, is that the same research also establishes the key role played by the gut microbiome in contributing to, or controlling, inflammation. But here’s the fundamental problem with the way healthcare is delivered today: Most drug companies focus solely on suppressing the symptoms of chronic conditions, rather than understanding and treating their root causes. In the prevailing pharma model, they want one drug for each condition. The fact is that many drugs have an efficacy rate of only about 20%; in other words, 80% of patients taking the drug receive minimal benefits, or no benefit at all.
We want to revolutionize healthcare and turn it into a truly preventative system.
The healthcare industry is not concerned with health, it is concerned with illness. There is no profit in healthy patients in a system that has emerged to address symptoms and not their underlying causes. Treating symptoms leaves the underlying causes unaddressed. But solve the root causes and the symptoms never show up. Viome’s goal is to create one drug for each person, rather than one drug per disease. This “drug” is nothing more than nutrition, which is highly personalized and based on each person’s unique gut biochemistry. It turns out that Hippocrates knew what he was talking about when he said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
With a combination of AI and metatranscriptomic sequencing technology, engineered by the prestigious Los Alamos Lab for National Security, Viome has developed methods for identifying microbial and host biomarkers that are predictive of these chronic diseases, revealing previously hidden or unknown correlations between the state of the gut microbiome and the development of certain diseases. We focus on analyzing each person’s gut microbiome, and modulating inflammation responses with precise and personalized nutrition.
We recently released findings from a breakthrough clinical research study proving that glycemic response to foods varies greatly based on each person’s unique gut microbiome and that it is not just the food an individual eats, but what their individual gut microbiome does with the food that matters when determining what foods are “healthy” for them. This further solidifies the idea that optimizing the gut microbiome with personalized recommendations based on an individual's unique gut biochemistry can play an essential role in preventing and reversing chronic diseases.
We also just announced a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic to better understand the role of nutrition in chronic diseases and explore the potential of Viome's AI-driven personalized diets in helping manage sleep disorders and obesity. The joint clinical research will focus on measures of obesity (including body fat %), metabolism, and sleep. While we already know that nutrition and gut microbiome affect sleep, with Mayo, we will conduct a large study to understand these connections, which will lead to the development of personalized diets and supplements that improve sleep.
As with every partnership, we hope to gain a better understanding of how nutrition affects chronic diseases, and explore the effectiveness of personalized nutrition as a strategy to help in treatment and prevention of these diseases. It is an audacious moonshot, but it is a problem worth solving.
What’s Viome’s future vision for how foodtech will change the way we think about and interact with food?
As I mentioned, in the AI field people may have also thought of deriving predictions from many types of omics data, but never have they had a chance to align with all the other factors and the functional medicine field to really connect all these dots meaningfully and in a way that can help people today.
First, we start with the biggest piece of the human biology puzzle. A few decades ago, we thought this puzzle piece would be the human genome but the human genome is only 20,000 genes. In comparison, our microbial genome is between 2 to 20 million microbial genes, making our genetic material 99% microbial. This means that to fully understand the human body we must start by collecting data and analyzing the gut microbiome – the richest source of our microbes.
To understand and learn more about these gut microbes, we use artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze biological data and learn from many sources of information. Viome’s artificial intelligence system, which we fondly refer to as ‘Vie,’ uses data gathered from four sources:
1. Biological testing – Currently, our primary testing is for the gut microbiome but be on the lookout for more.
2. Expert knowledge – Experts in the fields of microbiology, nutrition, and medical science are closely involved in training Vie and updating its knowledge base as new insights and experience become available and relevant.
3. Customer feedback – We collect information from questionnaires and chat interactions with customers who have received recommendations from Viome. Customers provide us information about their phenotypes (e.g., symptoms), as well as how they are following recommendations and the results they are seeing.
4. Scientific literature – We can also incorporate insights from carefully curated scientific publications, so Vie has access to scientific knowledge that is ready to be applied.
We meticulously collect this information and use it to educate our Vie – this is called knowledge representation and machine learning in the world of AI. We use a variety of algorithms that takes the above information and builds “models” of biology, then uses those models to reason through specific situations to make decisions about our customers’ health indicators and recommendations. Most of these algorithms are trained through expert knowledge and judgment, and are hence known to be supervised. We also use unsupervised algorithms to explore the data and discover patterns that human experts may have missed, with the goal that these insights can enrich our knowledge of human biology.
This process is an ongoing loop where we train Vie, analyze situations with it, take the resulting outcomes and apply it to our ongoing improvements and discovery, constantly refining every step of the way. We’re convinced that this process will eventually result in the most comprehensive collection of information available about the human gut microbiome and its impact on human biology.
What are some of the challenges your company and/or others within your industry are facing?
We wish we could make our service even less expensive. Even though we have reduced the costs substantially, there are still many people that cannot afford it. We have reduced cost per test from $5,000 to couple of hundred dollars. We are committed to further lowering the test costs over time.
Is there anything else we should capture?
The Bottom Line
Given the research emerging daily about the importance of the gut microbiome on your quality of life, prioritizing its health is essential.
Viome is continuously working to better understand the microbial functions inside of your gut so that they can provide you with more valuable insight and give you the tools to take control of your own health. Knowing what is actively going on inside of your gut and following a diet personalized for you empowers you to optimize your health in the most biologically-informed ways. Discover what your gut has been trying to tell you with Viome.
Your health could depend on it.