by intern | April 9, 2020 1:00 pm
While there is no secret code to health, curiosity is always rewarded, and from where Ara Katz–co-founder and co-CEO of consumer life science company, Seed–sits, that means honoring your gut in every possible way.
When prompted, Katz will remind you that every human being is home to a community of 38,000,000,000,000 microorganisms (mostly bacteria) that live in and on the body. Known as the microbiome, these microbes perform critical functions including digesting food, managing inflammation, and synthesizing key vitamins, metabolites, and neurotransmitters. A truth-seeker her entire life, Katz was awakened to the majesty of the microbiome while pregnant. Her unexpected realization about the reality of misinformation surrounding our health inspired a personal mission to explore the importance of microbes and how they can impact the health of our bodies, our children, and our planet.
Enter Seed, the consumer life science company developing probiotics and applications of bacteria to improve human and planetary health. Much like the microbiome to which she’s dedicated her life, Seed is itself a small ecosystem where Katz has learned about the world and the humans who inhabit it: what drives them, what moves them, what shakes them, and what grounds them.
Prior to her current role as Seed’s CEO, Katz spent nearly a decade in consumer tech learning how to build technology, grow large communities, and master all things web- based. With experience in film production, academia, and e-commerce, her career is dotted by moments that taught her the essence of what it takes to build a meaningful brand.
A question-asker, storyteller, and entrepreneur through-and-through, Katz has identified what may be the key to life itself: everything is connected–the choices we make extend beyond our body, to our earth. We cannot decode the relationship between the microbiome and human health without also addressing how bacteria can make an impact beyond our physical being.
We chatted with Katz about the welcome reminder that is connection, her early entrepreneurial days, motherhood, and the bacteria that has guided her here.
In your own words, what is Seed?
Seed is an ecosystem of kindred scientists, doctors, innovators, entrepreneurs, and translational storytellers from around the world. Together, we’re pioneering applications of bacteria to impact human and environmental health. We develop scientifically-validated, next-generation probiotics with a mission to bring much-needed precision, efficacy, and education to the global probiotics market. Our environmental R+D division, SeedLabs, develops novel applications of bacteria to solve some of our most pressing ecological challenges.
More simply put: We’re disrupting the BS in the $50 billion global probiotics market and stewarding the future of how we will use bacteria to restore and sustain human (think: gut, skin, oral, vaginal, and more) and planetary (think: honey bees, soil, water, food supply, plastics crisis) health with serious science.
Life science hasn’t always been your field of choice. What pulled you to transition from film production to entrepreneurship? And ultimately from consumer tech to science?
To me, all of it is entrepreneurship. Producing films is like a start-up each time, so there has never been a difference—all the same creativity, dot-connecting, storytelling, value creation—it’s all just different expressions in different categories.
I’ve loved technology, design, and storytelling my whole life. I started coding websites in high school and even as a producer, I was always working on films that were innovative in their formats or used new mediums to tell stories. While producing, I became a Visiting Fellow at the MIT Media Lab where I helped create the Center for Future Storytelling. With both academia and media, I was drawn to the agency you have in technology and startups—the ability to just make shit happen and move things forward without so many barriers.
I ultimately co-founded the mobile e-commerce marketplace, Spring. And then my move from consumer tech to life science was incepted by a miscarriage, which prompted the existential question, “what will be my impact”? I knew how to build companies, brands, communities, and technologies—whatever I decided to do next needed to be Zero to One; it needed to compel me, challenge me, and nudge the world forward. Shortly after I resigned from Spring, I was pregnant with my son, Pax, and met my now co-founder, Raja Dhir—a brilliant scientific mind, a fellow first principles thinker, and a true complement to my experience.
It was my pregnancy that introduced me to the microbiome and exposed me to the abundance of misinformation surrounding our health and the promise of products. And it was my difficulty breastfeeding that catalyzed our entrepreneurial journey to Seed.
Why did you create Seed and for whom is your product designed?
Seed started with the premise of reinventing infant formula, but we have since built a platform to bring scientific rigor, precision, and education to the incredibly noisy and confusing category of consumer probiotics and microbiome-related products. Seed is the result of lifelong questioning, the belief that we as humans have moved too far from science, and the potential of microbes to impact both human and environmental health.
Our first consumer product—the Daily Synbiotic—is a clinically-validated, next-generation probiotic + prebiotic formulation developed for systemic benefits. The 24 probiotic strains deliver benefits beyond digestion (though regularity, easing bloating, and improving digestive health is one of the most immediate and tangible benefits, especially for the 72 percent of Americans who live with digestive discomfort), including skin health, heart health, and gut immune function. It’s also the first formulation to include strains that synthesize folate and increase production within the body.
As our mindset shifts from sick-care to self-care, we’ve become more intentional about our diet, nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle. But we now also know that beneficial microbes offer new tools to preventively and proactively care for ourselves.
Our planet is in trouble. What is Seed doing to combat some of these ecological challenges?
Bacteria show us that everything is connected—that the choices we make extend beyond our body, to our earth. For us at Seed, human health and planetary health are one and the same so sustainability isn’t ‘important’, it’s table stakes.
We founded SeedLabs—our ecological R+D division—to develop novel applications for bacteria, partnering with kindred innovators to solve some of the biggest problems facing our collective home. Our first mission: save the bees. Our probiotic for honey bees was developed to counter the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides and to reduce American Foulbrood Disease for honey bee populations. This ongoing research is led by our Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid and SeedFellow, Brendan Daisley, who have identified probiotic strains that increase immune resilience through a pathway that insects use to adapt to infection, heat, and other stresses. Delivery via Seed’s probiotic BioPatties™ shows immense potential in improving survival rates and restoring honey bee populations around the world.
When it comes to our packaging, we think in systems and sustainability in the pursuit of materials that are not just earth-friendly but can leave a beneficial footprint. Each component of our sustainable refill system is designed to protect your Daily Synbiotic and be gentler on our Earth. The system begins with a Welcome Kit, which includes a glass jar (containing a 30-day supply of the Daily Synbiotic) and complimentary travel vial shipped in a compostable mycelium tray. Each subsequent monthly refill ships in a home-compostable oxygen and moisture protection pouch, which is further protected by a compostable and dissolvable corn foam insulator, which you can also eat (seriously, try it!).
What is the most popular misconception about gut health and probiotics you have debunked since founding Seed?
‘Gut mania’ is at an all-time high. Despite the ever-increasing number of ‘probiotic’ supplements, foods, and beverages out there, there’s still a lot of confusion about what probiotics are, how they work, and why we should take them.
One of the most common misconceptions about probiotics that we’ve worked to debunk is that they have to colonize the gut. When it comes to taking probiotics, you may have heard that you need to ‘restore’ or ‘rebalance’ our gut or ‘put the good bacteria back’. This is based on a common misconception that probiotics must alter the composition of your microbiome to “work”. Probiotics don’t actually work that way. In fact, outside of specific cases like fecal transplants, there is little evidence that probiotics ‘colonize’, or that they need to. Compared to the tens of trillions of microbes already rooted in your gastrointestinal tract, most probiotics don’t contain enough new bacteria to make a significant difference in the composition of your microbiota.
What scientists do know is that, as transient microbes, probiotics travel through your GI tract, interacting with your immune cells, dendritic cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to, directly and indirectly, deliver benefits. This is why, if you choose to take a probiotic, continuous daily intake is important.
Has your perspective on business or life overall shifted since having your first son, Pax?
When I had Pax, I realized that being a parent means being a scientist.mThe Scientific Method of Parenting is simply the process of asking questions, experimenting, observing, learning, and repeating—without attachment to the outcome (and most importantly, to a specific product, brand, source of information, compelling Instagram or marketing campaign, etc).
During pregnancy and most of my life, I was never satisfied with the answers and information available about our bodies and our health. I remember being 16, when my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, printing out PubMed articles of clinical trials at my high school computer lab, but also watching reiki masters come and go, despite the fact that my mom (ironically) worked at one of the most prestigious cancer hospitals in the world. There is a kind of methodical desperation with pathology—the openness to research and the emotional drive to find answers.
And yet, as a mom, I am continually confused by the lack of openness and extreme judgment that comes with raising our children. Between GMOs, vaccinations, sugar consumption, nutritional choices, breastfeeding, vaginal birthing, gluten, laundry detergents, and just about everything else, I have encountered a kind of extremism, a complete unwillingness to tolerate new information (especially when it contradicts an existing stance).
This is not to say that science knows everything. In fact, quite the opposite. It is, however, to say that the practice of questioning with an open mind and experimenting with an investigative spirit might be how we best serve our children.
Based on your experience thus far, what do you see as the future of science-backed wellness?
A new category of ‘consumer life science’ will emerge as a class of companies working in less regulated spaces, but taking on the burden of regulated ones. This will ensure there is a distinction and further stratification of health products to empower consumers to make better, informed choices. While regulation may not change, I foresee third-party certifications and consumer education to help inform the public.
What piece of advice do you wish you could instill on your younger self?
Choice E—none of the above—is also a choice.
What is your favorite quote?
I love words too much to have a favorite, but this Alan Watts is one I return to: “When you get free from certain fixed concepts of the way the world is, you find it is far more subtle, and far more miraculous, than you thought it was.”
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