For all of us trying to eat healthier — especially those who are battling a chronic disease — figuring out exactly how certain foods will affect your body is critical. That’s what Viome is trying to help people determine. The startup examines your microbiome to create personalized dining recommendations (and recipes) featuring foods that are an ideal fit for your biology.
We’re pretty fascinated by the whole concept of microbiome-based eating, so invited Guru Banavar, the CTO of Viome, to speak at The Spoon’s Customize event in New York on February 27. If you want to join us (you should!) there are only a few tickets left, so get on it! (Use code SPOON15 to get 15 percent off.)
To give you a taste of what’s to come, we asked Banavar a few questions about microbiome-driven eating, his time learning about AI with IBM Watson, and the biggest challenges for selling personal nutrition.
This interview has been edited for grammar and clarity,
Tell us a little bit about what Viome does.
Viome is on a mission to help people take control of their health and ultimately prevent and reverse chronic disease. We do this by understanding people’s biology on a molecular level, especially in their gut microbiome, using our proprietary metatranscriptomics technology combined with powerful AI-driven analysis to deliver them personalized insights and recommendations.
What’s the difference between personalized nutrition based on your microbiome (gut bacteria), and personalized nutrition based on your DNA?
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.
Therefore, the first difference is that DNA tests only look at DNA (your genes), which never change throughout your life — even if you develop a chronic disease. We at Viome look at RNA (gene expression, or what your genes are actually doing within your body) which is dynamic and changes all the time. It’s a better indicator of overall wellness and chronic disease. Since any two humans share [more than] 99 percent the same DNA, but only about 5 percent of the same microbial DNA, each person’s microbiome is incredibly unique — what works for you may not work for me.
In the past you’ve worked for a long time at IBM Watson. How do you think your AI experience has helped in the personalized nutrition field?
I was involved in solving a wide variety of problems from different industries at IBM Watson, so I quickly learned that AI is not one thing but really a toolbox of many techniques that you need to put together depending on the problem you’re solving. Personalized nutrition based on molecular data is a very challenging field, and I brought my experience with the full range of AI tools & techniques to get the fastest and the most effective solution.
Viome currently recommends diets and recipes. Do you see it ever working in tandem with foodservice or grocery?
We already see many of our customers reporting that they use their Viome app in the grocery store, when they are choosing foods and supplements online or when they are selecting from restaurant menus. As we build new services within our app we are looking to make this frictionless, and we are in early stage discussions with a number of large grocery retailers and international food companies…. watch this space!
What do you think is the biggest challenge for personalized nutrition?
We have actually found that once people understand the technology, take the test, they see amazing results, so our job is less about acceptance and more about awareness and inspiration.
The science around personalized nutrition is advancing rapidly with multiple new papers published every day, especially connecting the microbiome and chronic diseases like Diabetes, Obesity, IBS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers and Cancer. Our world class science team is working with partners like the Mayo Clinic, Kaiser, United Healthcare and GSK, among others, to not only keep on top of the science but advance it through clinical studies and trials. Not all companies who give personalized nutrition recommendations with the same depth of scientific rigor and understanding, so education is important.
Banavar will be speaking about microbiome-driven personalized nutrition along with the CEO of Sun Genomics at Customize! Don’t miss out — use code SPOON15 to get 15 percent off your ticket now, before they’re gone.