Photo from The Yuan
Startups harness artificial intelligence across various domains, even delving into gut-related concerns. These companies offer consumer tests using AI to scrutinize the microbiome—a vast array of body microbes aiding digestion, vitamin synthesis, and diverse bodily functions. These tests provide insights into the microbiome, suggesting personalized recommendations like dietary adjustments to alleviate digestive issues and enhance the body's microbial balance.
Several specialists warn that the field of microbiome testing and analysis is in its early stages, and the diverse microbial compositions among healthy individuals make it challenging to establish a precise definition of a healthy microbiome. Advocates, however, suggest that while the science is developing, microbiome tests can currently be employed to customize diets, potentially assisting in managing conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.
A recently funded startup named Jona has obtained $5 million in seed funding, primarily supported by Breyer Capital, and introduced a consumer-oriented microbiome test. Among the companies offering similar tests is Viome Life Sciences, which secured $86.5 million in venture financing earlier this year.
Artificial intelligence plays a pivotal role in the operations of both firms. In the case of Jona, the technology is utilized to sift through medical publications, identifying insights concerning an individual's gut microbes. Founder and Chief Executive, Leo Grady, mentioned that the startup suggests actions proven effective for individuals with akin health conditions and microbiomes. Grady stated, "The microbiome has been excessively intricate, and the scientific progress rapid to directly benefit individuals. Recognizing this gap, I saw AI as a fitting solution".
Grady, holding a doctorate in AI, previously served as the CEO of Paige, a startup endorsed by the FDA for AI-driven software assisting pathologists in detecting prostate cancer. He departed in late 2021 to become a CEO-in-residence at Paige investor Breyer Capital. During his contemplation of future ventures, Grady became increasingly enthusiastic about the advancing sophistication of large language models (LLMs), the deep-learning algorithms responsible for condensing and amalgamating textual information.
Although this AI category serves purposes in back-office functions like data entry, Grady envisioned its potential in leveraging large language models for intricate medical domains such as the microbiome. He emphasized, 'The prime prospect for implementing LLMs lies within medical sectors characterized by intricate data and swiftly evolving research.
Established in 2022 in New York, Jona is now initiating a comprehensive commercial release of a service that dispatches tests to consumers, who subsequently send back stool samples. Jona conducts genetic material sequencing of the microbes from these samples and employs large language models to meticulously analyze peer-reviewed studies on genetic sequencing of human stool samples, as highlighted by Grady. The company then utilizes interpretive AI to establish correlations among various studies and generative AI to generate comprehensive reports.
The generated reports consolidate research findings that connect an individual's microbiome to various diseases, medical conditions, symptoms, and allergies. Additionally, the service suggests dietary and lifestyle adjustments to steer the microbiome toward a more optimal and healthier state.
The service operates as a wellness product, bypassing the need for FDA approval as it is not a medical diagnostic tool. Jona is concurrently working on tests that would fall under FDA regulations, according to Grady. At present, Jona's service costs $385 and isn't covered by insurance. Customers receive monthly reports detailing the latest relevant literature findings concerning their microbiome.
Benjamin Wolfe, a microbiologist at Tufts University unconnected to microbiome-testing companies, noted that researchers have identified microbes linked to diseases. However, due to variations in microbiomes among both healthy and ill individuals, defining a standard, healthy gut remains a challenge, according to Wolfe.
Kate Scarlata, a registered dietitian based in Boston and the author of the upcoming book 'Mind Your Gut,' which offers behavioral and nutritional advice for individuals dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, stated, 'What constitutes a healthy balance for one's gut microbiome may differ from person to person.' Grady concurred that healthy microbiomes aren't universally identical. However, he mentioned that Jona's service identifies consistent indicators indicating when the microbiome deviates in patterns associated with certain conditions.
Inflect Health, the venture capital and innovation division of the healthcare services firm Vituity, participated in Jona's seed funding and introduced MOOV, a startup focusing on lifestyle, health, and wellness. Dr. Rick Newell, CEO of Inflect, mentioned that MOOV, where he serves as the CEO, has initiated providing Jona's services to patients. Newell also holds the position of chief transformation officer at Vituity.