As we now enter the fall of 2020, a year for the record books on so many fronts, our health remains at the top of the list. “Better living through science” might sound like sloganeering refracted through a more modern lens, but as human discovery pushes forward it seems as though that hope may come to fruition, and that we may need it to be true to deal with difficult and intractable problems.
The human body, familiar yet foreign in its workings to most of us, is a fertile ground for new discoveries as we seek to master our health and diets for optimal physical and mental performance. I spoke with Ara Katz, cofounder and -co-CEO of Seed Health, a microbial sciences company based in LA, working on probiotics to improve consumer health, about what prompted her to take up this latest venture in early 2016 and what promise it holds for the future. In short, the Seed Health foundry model partners with leading academic researchers to accelerate breakthrough science for the development of a pipeline of therapeutics and consumer innovations in probiotics.
A serial entrepreneur in consumer tech, Ara previously cofounded mobile commerce company, Spring, and advises and angel invests in companies like RXDefine, C16 Biosciences, mindbodygreen, and consumer brands like Stadium Goods.
Mary Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Ara Katz: As the first inhabitants of Earth, microbes hold vast potential to shape our future. They co-evolved with us, perform critical biological functions, and are radically transforming our approach to medicine, hygiene, diet, and the environment. Across all of our research areas, we are working to better understand the complex microbial ecosystems of our body, their role in our health, and how we can use specific microbes to impact health—from clinically-studied probiotics across various outcomes beyond the gut to therapeutics for unmet medical needs that could become the primary standard of care.
In collaboration with leading academic researchers across various disciplines, our foundry model enables rapid, efficient advancement of breakthrough science.
Our consumer life science brand, Seed, develops clinically-validated probiotics with a mission to bring much-needed precision, efficacy, and education to the global category. Our first product in market—DS-01 (Daily Synbiotic)—is a 24-strain multi-strain, multi-species probiotic + prebiotic formulation developed for systemic benefits including digestive, skin, and heart health, micronutrient synthesis, and gut immune function.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Katz: Our global community spans a broad intersection of humans—from scientists and physicians to parents, students, wellness advocates, yogis, biohackers, first-adopters, first responders, teachers, athletes, activists, environmentalists and many suffering from complex conditions like IBS and other GI disruptions. While varied in age, geography and perspectives, they are label-readers, question-askers, conscious carers for the environment, and deeply thoughtful about the choices they make for themselves, their body, and their health.
Both our scientific rigor and integrity in our communication and marketing has built a community that values integrity, transparency and our focus on education, efficacy, sustainability and accessibility.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Katz: The majority of my experience sits at the intersection of technology, storytelling, and startups. From coding websites in high school to building a mobile commerce company to building loyalty-worthy brands I’ve been creating, translating and dot-connecting across diverse categories for over a decade. I was also a Visiting Fellow at the MIT Media Lab where I experienced the framework of first principles thinking—the question of how you take a picture without a camera.
My move from consumer tech to life science was a long time coming. My mom died from pancreatic cancer when I was 16 and ever since researching clinical trials in high school, I had held onto my question-asking and incessant passion to understand not just the body and our biology, but the psychology of our choices and behavior. A miscarriage prompted my resignation from my previous company and the existential question, “What will be my impact?” I knew how to build companies, brands, communities, and technology—and whatever I decided to do next needed to be Zero to One; it needed to compel me, challenge me, and nudge the world forward.
It was my pregnancy and subsequent experience breastfeeding my son that introduced me to the microbiome, but it was meeting my cofounder, Raja, that inspired me to understand the potential of microbes.
Seed Health is the result of lifelong questioning, the belief that we as humans have moved too far from science, and the culmination of diverse experiences, successes, and learnings.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
Katz: My cofounder Raja Dhir is a brilliant scientific mind, a unique translator of research to development, and a fellow big question asker. Across our team, we have cultivated an ecosystem of scientists, doctors, innovators, technologists, and science communicators.
Our Scientific Advisory Board encompassesthe fields of microbiology, immunology, genetics, metabolomics, gastroenterology, pediatrics, molecular biology, and transcriptomics. These individuals lead labs, teach at world-renowned academic institutions, and have among them 2800+ publications and over 140,000 citations in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
We are likely one of the only companies where a Harvard immunologist works side by side with team members from SpaceX and Marc Jacobs.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure – what’s your favorite startup story?
Katz: It has to do with our URL, seed.com—but I can’t tell you until 2021.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Katz: I don’t like the term success. It implies finality and has always felt static to me. For me, milestones mean you have learned something that will inform where you go next. I think in experimentation and iteration. I think the best moments have been the result of asking a big question or idea, executing it and then observing its reception and impact. That can be a single launch or the sum of a whole company’s journey.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders?
Katz: Hire extraordinary people. Assume everything—even your Google Drive folder naming structure—is marketing. Put the why in everything. Take the time to onboard new team members. Find deep fulfillment in the act of creating and find time for deep work.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Katz: To fulfill our vision to impact health—both for humans and our planet. As microbes (our understanding of them and how we can use them) continue to inform more of our choices each day, and how we prevent and treat with medicine, we want to be known for our science, innovation and humanity. And more specifically in consumer health, to develop a category-defining brand that reflects a new global standard in the more than $70 billion probiotics market that goes far beyond the gut, offers extraordinary integrity in both science and its communication and cultivates a global community of citizen scientists inspired to think differently about their health.
Thank you to Ara for speaking to me. Heady stuff, particularly for those of us outside the sciences, but fascinating nonetheless. #onwards.