We’re so proud of who we are, but we are simply a beautiful container for these microorganisms.
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Naveen Jain’s passion lies in discovering the newest technologies and turning them into successful businesses that will have a global impact and improve the lives of millions. He has founded several companies in the science, technology and medicine arenas, including Bluedot, Intelius, Talent Wise, Moon Express, and InfoSpace.
Jain’s latest venture, Viome, focuses on personalized approaches to disease prevention, with the goal of creating a world where “sickness is elective.” Initially, this takes the form of “a subscription-based service that will analyze the functioning of a customer’s body regularly and adjust nutritional recommendations to maintain optimal wellness.”
Jain joined J. Walter Thompson Intelligence global director Lucie Greene for a discussion at the launch of The Well Economy, the new report from J. Walter Thompson Intelligence about the new landscape of health. Below is an edited excerpt from their conversation.
When we look at the visual materials you’ve produced showing what Viome looks like—depicting the microbiome and metabolic intelligence—it sounds very sci-fi. Do you agree?
Well, it’s actually not sci-fi. I think if you really look at humans, our bodies are extremely complex. We believe we’re the product of our DNA, but it turns out, when we look at ourselves, less than 1% of the genes that are expressed actually are our own. 99% of all the genes expressed in our body come from the micro-organisms that live inside us.
Think about that. We’re so proud of who we are, but we are simply a beautiful container for these microorganisms. I am my microbes. Between any two people, 99% of our DNA is the same, and less than 1% is what differentiates you and I. In fact, between me and a tree, 90% of our DNA is the same.
What really makes us so unique is the symbiotic relationship with the microorganisms we have inside us and outside us. In fact, if you look at micro-organisms in the gut, less than 3% are the same between two people. Imagine that. Everything that we do is digested by these microbes, and less than 3% of it is the same.
So where did the idea for Viome come from?
I’m not a scientist, but I spend a lot of time reading and understanding what is going on. And I was talking to our friends at Los Alamos National Lab, where, incidentally, they are very famous for building atomic bombs. More recently, they became really worried about defenses against biological weapons. They spent years and millions of dollars trying to find out, if there were to be a biological attack somewhere, how would we know what we’ve been infected with? So they wanted to develop technology where they could analyze any bodily fluid—urine, blood or stool—and find out what is actually going on inside your body. Based on that, they would know what’s making you sick.
After they did that, I looked at the technology and thought, “Oh! Wouldn’t that be great to keep people healthy?” We could find out what’s making them sick, and if we could take that out, then they would be healthy. So, that is how Viome came about.
This seems quite far removed from the way we currently think about healthcare. How does the healthcare system fit into your thinking?
I looked at healthcare and education, and it turns out the problems in both systems are the same. In both, people think the system is not working and it is broken. It turns out, neither the education system nor is the health care system is broken. They’re both doing exactly what they were designed for—but our needs have completely changed.
In a sense, our healthcare system was designed for when we were dying of infectious disease: we got sick, we went to the hospital, we got better, we came back. What’s happening now is we have chronic disease: we’re always sick. The healthcare system wasn’t designed for chronic diseases.
Here’s the irony: the cure for the infectious diseases is what caused the chronic diseases. In the 20th century, we believed a sterile human is the best human. Get rid of all the viruses and bacteria in our body and we will be a perfect human being.
What they did not realize was that symbiotic relationship is what makes us human. Our DNA only produces 19,000 genes. Roundworm has 22,000 genes—think about that! So roundworm has more genetic material than we do. What makes us higher on the food chain? Millions of microbes in our gut product an additional 5,000,000 genes. They actually are the ones that feed our body when we feed them well.
The idea with Viome is that it enables every single person to get a very granular picture of their personal health, using blood testing, right?
My whole reason for doing Viome was that I was absolutely convinced that my next moonshot would be: What if we could make illness a choice? Chronic disease is something that no one should ever have. Diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, allergies, eczemas—all of them are diseases of inflammation that come from not having proper diet and nutrition for your microorganisms. If you can get personalized data nutrition, all these chronic illnesses will go away. That is my moonshot.
What if you could predict and prevent chronic diseases even before you see the symptoms? What we do now is order a test that analyses your gut. The interesting thing is, in our gut, not only do we have bacteria, we also have viruses—DNA viruses, RNA viruses, and the viruses called bacteriophages that only infect bacteria and not humans. We have fungus, parasites, we have yeast, we have eukaryotes and archaea, and all of these things are important to our gut health. We look at every single organism—not only their DNA and who they are, but also their RNA, which tells us what they’re doing.
Your body has something called epigenetics that controls whether genes are going to be expressed, under-expressed or over-expressed. Diet and nutrition affects this and whether chronic diseases happen, or not.
We test you every 3 months, look at the diet and only focus on you. Every person is unique, and we look at each person how they adapt to different diets, and we change the diet every three months. So it’s really a service that you sign up for.
You’ve spoken a lot about moonshots. Do you think these ideas will really disrupt the healthcare industry?
Entrepreneurs are going to be the next superpowers—all of the societal problems that used to be the domain of nation-states will be solved by entrepreneurs. I believe that entrepreneurs understand that doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive. Better yet, you can hold an entrepreneur accountable for their actions.
I talk about this more in an e-book I just launched called Moonshot—how will we disrupt education, healthcare, and more. It’s only our own mindset that limits us from doing amazing things.