Up today is Fitbiomics, which spun out of Harvard several years ago with a mission to decode and recode human health, starting by mining the microbiomes of elite athletes for novel probiotic candidates.
We caught up with Jonathan Scheiman, PhD, co-founder and CEO, who gave us his thoughts on his path to market, the lessons learned launching a consumer brand during a pandemic, and what’s coming next in the Fitbiomics pipeline.
NutraIngredients-USA (NIU): Tell us how you went from the Wyss Institute to being CEO of a probiotics start-up
Jonathan Scheiman (JS): I was incredibly lucky to do a postdoctoral fellowship at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The mantra there is to translate cutting-edge research into real-world applications that can benefit society in numerous ways, from human to environmental health. The Wyss is focused on bringing innovations out of the lab to serve as a foundation for transformative startups - and that sort of environment greatly fosters entrepreneurship. We spent years developing our microbiome R&D as an academic project, which led to a high-impact publication and IP. But in parallel there was a tremendous amount of market research and business development coaching that enabled us to ascertain how our technology could be commercially viable. Ultimately - FitBiomics licensed IP that was developed at the Wyss which was such a springboard for our company. Also, based on our origins within biotechnology and metagenomics – it informed our foundation and viewpoint for who we want to be as a company. I'll just say that FitBiomics is not necessarily a probiotics company. We view ourselves as a next gen human health and performance company, using microbiome Innovations as a force for good to change human health and longevity as we know it
(NIU: To read more about the Fitbiomics origin story, please click HERE)
NIU: How would you say your approach or ethos is treading a path or direction that no other firm company has explored before?
JS: A big differentiation point for FitBiomcis is our guiding principle of decoding and recoding human health. I am a big believer in form fits function and natural selection - finding solutions through evolution. So if we want to develop next-gen probiotics for human health - we believe the best place to search for that is in the biology of the most fit and healthy people in the world. Thus FitBiomics is decoding the gut microbiome of elite phenotypes to identify what is unique or enriched in them, that drives optimal performance, and then translate those findings into next gen nutrition to help every body. There are many forms of elite phenotypes, with many beneficial types of physiology we can decode - from energy metabolism, protein metabolism, neurology, and an immunology perspective. We are focusing to start on elite athletes and looking for microbes enriched in them that help drive endurance, strength, mental toughness, and recovery. Though these attributes clearly extend beyond athletics – finding probiotics that support these functions can help everyone int their daily lives.
NIU: You launched Nella during a pandemic – how has that experience been and what’s the initial feedback been like from the market?
JS: It definitely is an interesting time - for the whole world, which has changed the way we live in many ways. We actually started our first beta test for Nella in March 2020, right before everything shut down in the States. I guess one positive is that people have become more conscientious about their health and what they are putting in their bodies. This is across the board, and includes sustainability interests, but certainly part of this is that probiotics and gut health have become even more mainstream… even just the term ‘microbiome’.
FitBiomics is always hypothesis and validation driven - so our beta test was with 250 participants, each consuming Nella on a daily basis for 2 weeks and asking for feedback through extensive questionnaires before, during, and after consumption. I remember us thinking that if at least 70% of the participants indicated they liked our product, then we should consider moving forward with commercialization. As it turned out almost 95% of participants responded they had at least one functional benefit from Nella - in only two weeks! These benefits included improved digestion, bowel movements, energy as well as improved quality of sleep. Because Nella consists of athlete derived variants of Lactobacillus species, we somewhat expected the gut health results, but the feed ack on benefits for sleep was very exciting. This propelled us to move forward, and we launched Nella direct-to-consumer a little over a year ago. We have since received tremendous positive feedback and insights from the market. I like to say that we have been field tested as well - with Olympians using Nella in Tokyo to win medals. Additionally, we’ve had world champions and world record holders use Nella to support their pursuits - so even super performers are benefiting.
We have also partnered with St. John’s University to be the official probiotic of the University, while supporting student-athletes with microbiome innovations and NIL. Which of course was a treat for me because that's where I played basketball in college. Even more exciting - we recently had some really great news coverage in the NY Post and on Good Day New York. The headlines were a little provocative - but ultimately about health, which created a viral demand for Nella - to the point where we recently sold out of stock! So I’d say that it's been an incredible journey of translating initial discoveries from Harvard into the real world products that have been validated and generated strong Market interest. But perhaps more importantly Nella is providing strong functional benefits to a wide range of consumers - from everyday health seekers all the way to Olympians
NIU: What else is in the pipeline (that you can tell us about)?
JS: This is such an appreciated question - because there is a lot in the pipeline! FitBiomics first gained attention for our discovery of Veillonella, a lactic acid eating microbe, and subsequent publication in Nature Medicine. We found that Veillonella increases in abundance in the gut of elite athletes after exercise and has the unique ability to convert lactic acid, a by-product of exercise and associated with fatigue, into short-chain fatty acids to promote endurance in preclinical studies. Since that publication I’m excited to say we have upscaled Veillonella manufacturing - creating commercially viable prototypes (no small feat for a next-gen anaerobic probiotic) and have passed the necessary safety studies required from a regulatory standpoint. So, we have effectively gone from a lab scale discovery to a real-world product – and it’s awesome to see it come to fruition being close to commercial ready, We have some announcements that we’ll be making shortly – so stay tuned! But beyond gut health with Nella and endurance with Veillonella, our Endgame is to scale our microbiome discovery platform – isolating 1000s of next-gen probiotics, from a spectrum of elite phenotypes, for numerous functional applications. This includes programs for strength, neurological applications, and more. And of course, there are opportunities for utilizing some of these microbes for applications beyond consumer health. so, it's an exciting time for microbiome discovery and translation
NIU: Access to capital is always an issue for start-ups. Does being in the microbiome space change the conversation with potential investors?
JS: Being an entrepreneur is always an adventure and part of our job is trying to not only see the future but convince others that 1) our venture is a worthwhile endeavor 2) it’s feasible to accomplish our aspirational goals… and then of course 3) that you can create a sustainable business model at the same time! I do think there is an interesting juncture right now between biotechnology, microbiome innovations, and a new wave of food tech. Biotech and the microbiome traditionally have been focused on therapeutics, but I think a lot of folks now see how these areas can be applied to nutritional modalities for health and wellness purposes. So, in addition to treating disease also focusing on prevention - with sort of a food as medicine approach. With FitBiomics, we like to add the exercise as medicine approach as well - keeping people active keeps people healthy. And this created a lot of excitement for investors.
There is also a lot of very real and alarming data out there from the CDC in that 60% of Americans have at least one chronic condition (obesity, diabetes, kidney, cardiovascular, neurological) – a lot stemming from poor nutrition and lack of physical activity. So, innovation in consumer health is not just a nice to have – it’s critical I think a lot of people believe in the microbiome and the probiotics industry is strong and continues to grow. With that said, it's very interesting times in the world and I think more people are looking for de-risking early on with ventures. So, it's a combination of storytelling, in which the microbiome helps, but also there is a requisite for innovation, IP, and at the same time validating market demand and business models. FitBiomics, as a lean startup, has been trying to accomplish all of these things in unison since spinning out of Harvard around 4 years ago
NIU: In the probiotic, prebiotic and microbiome space, what would you say is the next research area that the industry needs to keep its eye on?
JS: I think in general it's an exciting time because we're just scratching the surface of a new frontier in human health with biotechnology and multi-omics leading the way. I definitely think the industry needs to focus on diversity, acceleration, and accessibility. When you think about the probiotics industry - it’s decades-old with only a handful of strains on the market, from a handful of suppliers and manufacturers. Many of these strains were isolated from food, baby poop, animals, or the environment - mostly selected because of their ability to be manufactured at scale. For sure, a Lot of work has gone into developing this industry. But contrast that with the trillions of microbes in our bodies and environment afforded to use from natural diversity and evolution. We need to continue to decode diverse forms of health – which could be associated with exercise, aging, resiliency, food tolerance, and efficacy of therapeutic use, to name a few. Learnings from such endeavors and source codes can lead to applications in animal and planetary health as well and the more we learn the more precision based our probiotic modalities will become. And we of course to need to continue the evolve metagenomics, informatics, culturomics, and fermentation pipelines to accelerate discovery and scalability of next-gen (anaerobic) microorganisms.
Perhaps most important – we need to educate consumers about the importance of this work, biotechnology, the microbiome, gut health, and probiotics. We also need to translate and optimize our supply chains to make innovations are accessible and affordable to broader populations, so that that that ensuring everyone can benefit from innovations in health. Fitbiomics looks to achieve this by bridging the gap between cutting edge technology and pop culture - creating awareness around microbiome innovations while making them more relevant and tangible.
NIU: Finally, what is the significance for Fitbiomics of being named one of our 2022 Probiota Pioneers, and how do you think it helps your profile in such an innovative, ever-changing industry?
JS: This is such an honor! It truly is exciting to be a part of this community and recognized as a Probiota Pioneer. It's also in many ways validating. Being an entrepreneur inherently means being avant-garde, thinking differently, and essentially trying to convince people you're not crazy. We’re effectively trying to build the future in real time… but that can take a long time. I think back to starting our first athlete microbiome study at Harvard in 2015 and here we are 7 years later. Maybe what we were doing was considered niche and/or a crazy concept but perhaps the craziest thing is that a lot of it came to fruition. And I feel like the Probiota community has sort of watched us grow up along the way. So, I think the significance is a way of saying that the journey was/is worth it. It keeps us motivated to explore and innovate and push the boundaries of what we think is possible. This sort of validation, support, and recognition from the industry is something that means the world and inspires us to continue to think differently.
IPA World Congress + Probiota Americas 2022
The 2022 IPA World Congress + Probiota Americas, June 1-3 in Washington, D.C., will feature world-leading experts to present the latest scientific, technical and market insights, and opens with presentations about the potential impact of probiotics on COVID-19 outcomes. Other key themes include: e-commerce markets across the Americas; Microbiome modulation to improve sleep and manage stress, the Tech Showcase; updates from the regulatory field, tips and tricks on working with influencers to communicate with consumers, insights from leading start-ups, and our Future Focus panel, which asks “Where Next for the Industry?”
For more information and to register, please click HERE.