E90: Jessica Richman, co-Founder and CEO of uBiome – Interview

January 24, 2017


This interview is all about your gut. It’s with Jessica Richman. Jessica is the co-Founder and CEO of uBiome. uBiome helps to understand the health of your gut. There are many health conditions that arise from gut bacteria. We learn about some of those on this podcast.

uBiome’s SmartGut™ is the world’s first sequencing-based clinical microbiome screening test, providing detailed and accurate information to help you understand your gut health. We learn how uBiome sequences and analyzes your gut biome. It’s all about the data.

uBiome went through Y combinator and has raised about $26 million.

Jessica is a great person to interview. And I enjoyed learning more about my gut and how understanding it will help millions of people.


Here are some other things we talk about:

-Does the 3 second rule apply?
-What does the raw data look like of your microbiome?
-What types of things can uBiome detect?
-What’s healthy and not healthy for your gut?
-How did Jessica start uBiome with her co-Founder?

Dave Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs and today we get to talk to Jessica Richman. And Jessica is the Co-Founder and CEO of uBiome, and uBiome helps to understand the health of your gut. So many health conditions actually arise from your gut bacteria. So we are going to learn a little bit more about that and so uBiome SmartGut is the world’s first sequencing-based test to help understand your gut health, which sounds pretty cool. So they have raised a lot of money and also went through an [inaudible] and I’m excited to learn more abut my guts and what Jessica is working on at uBiome. So Jessica, thanks for coming on our show today.

Jessica Richman: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.

Dave Kruse: Great. So let’s get right into and so how did you start uBiome and come up with the idea; it’s not the most typical.

Jessica Richman: It’s a good question. Yeah it’s pretty unusual. So my kind is actually not in healthcare. I studies computer science and economics at Stanford and then I was getting a PhD in Social Science; it’s a kind of applied math at Oxford and basically looking at large data sets like the Facebook dataset and LinkedIn dataset using novel techniques to better understand them. And I was little bit frustrated, because I through you know this is – I don’t have to change the world by doing you know better and more sophisticated algorithm development on this dataset. Similarly my Co-Founder who was doing his PhD, UCSF in Biophysics and he had worked on some of the projects related to the microbiome project, which is this big government funded attempt to understand the microbiome. And we just realized the human microbiome project that the SAH funded $173 million and only studied 242 people, and yet they had done like technology development, they were pioneers, there were a lot of reasons they’d only studied 240 people. But the thought was like that’s not good data. Let’s get a really good data set and then use that data set to generate novel conclusions around the microbiome. And for me personally the idea was just you can take the same techniques that you are using in computational social science world and apply them to computational biology and just have so much more to bank back in terms of meaning and purpose and doing something really useful and important for the world. So we started uBiome to gather this big dataset and then you know just gather data, question mark profit you know, just gather live data and use of analysis, great things will happen and that’s what we did. So the SmartGut test that you were talking about earlier is like you said the world’s first sequencing based clinical microbiome test. We made that test because we have the data that we gathered from our citizen scientists and explorers. They were able to learn up little bit about microbiome and the impact of your health. We were able to also take that data and use it to make a clinical product which doctors can prescribe for their patients, for personal insurance, process in the capital credit lab and all the – just like any other lay test that your doctor or hospital might order for you and it was made to this process of being able to take data as of the microbiome and make it useful by turning into something that has clinical impact.

Dave Kruse: And can you tell us how somebody would go about you know ordering a test and then how do you take that data and actually find some useful insights?

Jessica Richman: Yeah absolutely. It’s a really good question. So the ordering was not so much. We have the explorer product anyone can go online anywhere in the world, by the explore kit. You know type in uBiome.com/explore and you put your credit card information, we offer the sales, take a measure of those two and you sign it and it will tell you about health and wellness factors related to your microbiosis. It’s not a medical test but it will tell you about your levels of different bacteria’s, some suggestions for food and supplement and lifestyle changes to make – to improve it, all on sort of health, diet, lifestyle focus. So SmartGut that’s currently only available in the United States has to be ordered by a doctor in your state. You go to SmartGut.uBiome.com and sign up and if you have your own doctor we’ll notify them, if you don’t have a doctor we have doctors that were engaging within each state. Right now we have California doctors and we have others who have been able to – where the doctor will be able to do a consultation with you and then order the test. So those are two very different pathways, one for lifestyle information and one for medical tests where people who have chronic death condition, the doctor can order it and its paid for by insurance and at this point we are doing a pilot on it, so we don’t balance those, which means the short end version where we are saying that it’s a EU, the patient will not have to pay during our pilot program. So that means it’s essentially free to the patient which is awesome and very rare is a healthcare system. So on your question about TETA, I think the really interesting things is that you know before five years ago, you know around the time of the conclusion of the microbiome project, there were maybe 1000 people in the entire world for any study ever have their microbiome sequence, they just wasn’t that much data. Yeah, I mean that’s kind of amazing and now our dataset is the largest in the world. Its over a 100,000 samples, but it’s still – and its, I mean small in terms of you think about the 7 billion people in the world to all have many microbiomes, they will all get sicker. So the curve how quickly the microbiome sequence, you know samples are being stored and analyzed, its growing really rapidly, but it’s not what it will be. You know I think Microbiome in you know 10 years microbiome testing was just the standard of care, will be kind of a team, people will be like, ‘oh! what’s the big deal and of course I got my microbiome test. It is only now that this is kind of a big deal. So I would say that data helps us to better understand what’s in microbiome, what’s normal and healthy and what are differences between healthy people and people who have a specific health condition and how can we use that data to better understand early detection, treatment, the effective different treatments and kind of tracking a course of an illness. So when you really good example of that, are people who have non-specific step condition for people who have been diagnosed with IBD or IBS or CYS, but they just have got symptoms that they just do not go and so we are not consulting and so people call that leaky gut syndrome or small intestinal bacterial over growth, there are a lot of different names. So that’s just because nobody knows what it is or just trying to figure out and help themselves. So one of the things with the SmartGut testing in a population is like, ‘look not just that any bacteria they look at commensally bacteria and sample is great you have really high levels of these sort of bacteria’s and say, okay this is great. You have really high level of the B’s for the bacteria, and you can say oh, you know one of the bacteria’s moving on is actually gelled with the probiotic when you take that and see if it helps. It may help or it may not, but at least you kind of know what you are suppose to be doing and you are not kind of blind find or one of the bacteria’s that I am rather low hidden you know is said by a specific pre-biotic fiber, so let me take that fiber that seems to helps me. So we can use that information to kind guide treatment and then you can test again and say, oh Wow! You know [inaudible] it’s great, and my symptoms also approved. Let see if this so true, so let’s see if this is actually you know improving the microbiome, but it’s also effecting my principal. So in that way kind of by gathering this type of data you can start to come up with better protocols for helping people who currently don’t even have a diagnosis, or don’t even have this, to serve trial and error treatment that sometimes takes years for people to figure out what the point is.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, I think I know a few people who can benefit. I think I could benefit, I think I of most people…

Jessica Richman: I know so many people. Yeah – no its really surprising actually, the more people you talk to, because this is definitely people talked about and it’s like, oh did you hear about my experiences on the party, [inaudible] but there is definitely a sense that you know so many people talked about, but it effects so many people. We’ve read estimates at 10% of the earth’s population from chronic diet issue, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed. And its – I mean in my conversation with people, in my samples that they provided, people talked to me like [inaudible]. We definitely hear like how many people that have these problems and they are kind of not, they are kind of ill-defined and it’s unclear what might help or what might not and people just give up in frustration or just keep going back to the doctor all the time, and I think out hope in SmartGut will help cut that cycle short and give people better information to better figure out what they need to do.

Dave Kruse: Well, it would be so interesting in the future, as you get more of these – is to you know, because they are coming out with research about good health related to so many differ things. So like cancer and good health, like do they have a different microbiome. I obviously don’t know right now probably, but…

Jessica Richman: And in fact and that’s when I am really interested and particularly if I ever find the true chemotherapy recently, which is the stuff that was horrible that you can go through. And you know the gut, what chemo does to your gut microbiome is apparently it just kills your gut microbiome and you know to sometimes to make it impossible to form a new gut microbiome. If you think about in terms of pharmaceutical collaboration like can we make chemo that’s just around the gut but stills does what it needs to do or can we make. How we do measure is where yes you can chemo because you have to and you know that’s the state of the art for cancer and that can you take things that will make your gut microbiome more or less to come back or be less devastated during the process.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, that would be great. And I’m curious more from a technical standpoint, because I just get curious is that, say you have – I get my gut sequenced and so yeah, Dave’s sequencing there. How does that look? Like how do you store that on your system like? Do you record the number of different bacteria and how does that and then…

Jessica Richman: It’s a good question. Yeah, so we, so we get this fairly small sample and it’s easy to collect, because it’s not like a gigantic tool sample like some tests you have to have. You swab your toilet paper with a sterile swab, a q-tip. You stick it in a tube of buffer of fluid, you are shake it up based on the pack certificate, literally two minutes and it’s not as gross, its non-gross. What we are dealing with and basically its just sort of [inaudible]. Now what we do from that is we extract the relevant DNA, to help us identify which bacteria we are looking at. We extract the DNA, we PCR it and we replicate lot of copies of it. We do a bunch of steps to kind of clear up you know which, you know clear out things that might be confuting to the process, we sequence it and then what we have at the end is what comes out of the sequence or strings of wheat, so you know A, C, T and Z and if you know in rows and then you have to do a lot of filing to figure out what are – you know if I have this string of A, C, T’s and Z what is that, which bacteria is that and there are some public data bases that you can use but we have also done our own effort to clean them up and easier for us to identify what’s right and does this string of characters mean that bacteria A or does it mean bacteria B and sometimes they are hard, hard to tell what’s a mistake and what’s just the difference.

Dave Kruse: That’s what I was going to ask. How do you get it right, how do you know?

Jessica Richman: Yeah, I mean hand on, and its really important to get it right, right because we are certainly making decision on peoples health based on which bacteria it is. So we do a lot of work to clean, to sort of get a clean list and then we store, we store all of it because the data search is cheap. So we store – the reeds, we store. Our own analysis of the reeds, we store the list of bacteria, again like the think that we determined that was in that process and then we store it. In the case of you know SmartGut we stored a lot of the data that was hit by coverage information about who the patient is or their doctor is and all their stuff. But I think the interesting part is that when we do this laboratory process that comes out with a bunch of letters, but then, well great, you need to know what those letters mean. Again, knowing what those letters name is not a trivial process. There is a lot of scientific judgment that goes into figuring out, okay, if it’s almost something, but not quite that. Do you count it as that or do you kind of out it. You obviously don’t do that processing. Your reading algorithms that make you know that use statistical methods to find out which bacteria that you are looking at.

Dave Kruse: Got you, okay. So let’s see we have about five minutes. I got different questions, but – so times flies and so…

Jessica Richman: We’ll get done, we’ll do it.

Dave Kruse: Yeah exactly, we’ll go rapid fire. So have you done any studies out there about what effects gut health, whether its stress or diet or is that to be determined still?

Jessica Richman: That’s a really good question. There are lots of studies. So there are a lot of things you know are good, and certain things that we know are bad and there is a lot of things we are just not sure – and the kind of new things that we know are good are fermented foods, because essentially when you are eating a fermented food, you are eating a bunch of bacteria and the food that they eat, because otherwise they wouldn’t be – the food wouldn’t be fermented. So we are very clear that there are many different kinds of fermented food and they are really good for people because not only are you eating healthy, bacteria but you are eating the food that they eat [inaudible], you know the process of going to your gut and then lining up in the right place, so we know that that’s good. We know that probiotics when they work are good. They don’t always work and its often unclear. Is it the wrong probiotic in the wrong time; is it the wrong probiotic for you; was it never in the pill at all due to lack of good regulation and manufacturing, there’s a lot of good questions on that. But assuming that you get the right food at the right time is a good thing. And there is pre-biotic, which is sort of food for bacteria and you can take pre-biotic fiber and you put it in all sorts of different foods. You can also just buy the fiber itself, as those foods are something you put it into a glass of water and drink it and that’s food for bacteria. So these things we know are good, and when we know that our varied diet with lots of different kinds of different foods is good, because those foods carry their microbiome with them and allow you to get rare bacteria you might not get otherwise. Things that we know are bad are you know food that has – you know where you just eat all like one type of food. You know always eat McDonald hamburgers and nothing else, like because it’s bad for microbiome. We know that you know diets that are low in vegetable and you know other things that might have dirt on them, because its full of bacteria and it can be very helpful, we you know those are bad.

And the kind of things that we don’t know about or we don’t know like is a vegetarian diet better than a meat eating diet or is that even a meaningful question. Like we don’t know if that – we don’t know directly if there is like evidence of what it would have been. So we basically often give it to people and the suggestions we make in the explorer comments are often around things like, you look low in this bacteria, you might want to eat this fermented food.

Dave Kruse: Got you, okay. Interesting.

Jessica Richman: You had a second question too, which I think I…

Dave Kruse: No, I think that’s – well, my other question is more actually more general. Just can you give us some stats on your Biome? Like I know you have raised a good amount of money, or and ..

Jessica Richman: Yeah, yeah.

Dave Kruse: Just to give people a feel.

Jessica Richman: Yeah, so there is a [inaudible] at this point. We have 50 employees. We have been around for 4 years and we are really excited, I guess that’s our last. We have a lot of really cool stuff to do and you know I think the interesting thing from a startup perspective is you know we are really new phase. We are a data driven approach to life sciences. So we are kind of in-between traditional life sciences, drug development company and a marketing analytics company or something. We have a lot of data that is very well used in this space and you kind of have some better data analysis. So I think we are kind of in between these places which allows us to have a really strong technical approach, both in the analytics side of what is this data and what does it mean and also a laboratory side of lets do creative and innovative lab processes that have not done before.

Dave Kruse: It makes senses, okay. And the last question, and this is one of – you can answer one of two of them. So where do you want to take uBiome over the next three to five years or what type of a study do you really want a do in the near future.

Jessica Richman: And they are kind of related actually. So what’s interesting about having your friends in science, I guess maybe I’ll answer broadly. What’s interesting around the clinical science platform is that you certainly can do any kind of study. So we have done all kinds of, we did – we thought microbiome was money, we looked at you know is the three second rule. Like we do like fun little studies that no one would – no, we found that it made a difference if it wet or not.

Dave Kruse: Is it good to be wet or not or you probably…

Jessica Richman: No, because if it’s wet that means that you picked up the microbiome off the floor. It’s not wet if it’s probably successful. So but I mean it’s interesting. So we had – we’ve done those kinds of studies that are just fun and interesting and that no one would ever fund scientific sector or take seriously, but we have a lab and we are in the closing is just because its open to anyone. Anyone could do their own, because we are happy to have, you have your some population that you are testing then or if you have a funny hypothecs you can just like it and test it and you know do your thing right. So I like that aspect of it. For a business that’s not a business. From a business perspective, you know what you buy will be with the leading company. What we do is take this data set and derive value from it, from making clinical tests and making – and other products that come from microbiomes. So I think as uBiome grows what we will do is we will have more and better clinical tests and also some other more drug and treatment related products that we go to market with. But from the microbiome studies to do exactly and I think there are so many things that are not really – from a business perspective are not you know kind of immediately the huge revenue like its for – they are just interesting, and they allow us to engage with the scientific community and satisfy your curiosity and that’s kind of the fun part of doing this.

Dave Kruse: Got you. Well all right, well that’s a good way to end the podcast and this is great and I’m excited to order a test here. I’m in Wisconsin. I don’t think I could figure out how to do it yet, but – if I sort of go to my doctor can I just ..

Jessica Richman: Oh yes, so you can do just that and sign up there and if you are in California then we can find a doctor for you and if you not then we can – then we are opening up in various states. So definitely sign up.

Dave Kruse: All right.

Jessica Richman: First people to sign up will be the first people to get it as soon as we open.

Dave Kruse: All right, excellent, it sounds good. Well, I definitely appreciate your time Jessica and your thoughts on various things you are doing. It’s pretty cool. So good luck and…

Jessica Richman: Thank you. This has been really fun. Thank you, have a great day.

Dave Kruse: Thank you and thanks everyone, bye.