🚀 AI, Microbiome and the Future of Health
Biology is experiencing its AI moment, in a big way. Huge amounts of data — sequencing, imaging, and patient data — coupled with powerful compute and AI models are driving discovery and R&D. McKinsey estimates that breakthroughs in biology over the next ten to twenty years will have a direct economic impact of $2-4 trillion globally per year.
This week, I spoke to a founder who is riding the AI biology wave. His mission: to provide people with personalised nutritional guidance based on their unique gut microbiome data and machine learning.
Jonathan Wolf is the CEO and co-founder of ZOE, a health-tech company that combines new biological research and machine learning to offer users hyper-specific advice about their food intake. By tailoring your diet to the idiosyncrasies of your gut, ZOE says, you can avoid inflammation, improve your energy levels, better control your weight, and reduce your risk of developing conditions like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
ZOE is fascinating for several reasons. The company counts highly-esteemed scientists among its staff, and publishes high-level scientific research in top journals, carrying out studies many times faster than is usual within academia. Jonathan’s background is in high-growth internet companies, and he helps ZOE mix the rigour of the academe with the blitzscaling approach of a consumer internet startup. The company’s methods might just lay the foundation for an entirely new way of doing science, and no one can explain them better than him.
The Big Idea
After we eat a meal, the concentration of certain substances in our blood changes: glucose, insulin, types of fat, and so on. Everyone experiences a version of that change, known as a postprandial response.
These responses can vary a lot from person to person. ZOE’s PREDICT 1 study, which studied 1,102 people, showed huge variation in metabolite levels in the period following a meal.
That study included 115 sets of twins. By assessing people with identical genes (and backgrounds) the company was able to tease out the factors that had the largest impact on health outcomes:
“[Y]ou saw over and over again these profoundly different outcomes with individuals who not only had exactly the same genes [but] they also had exactly the same upbringing for their first 18 years. [...] There were two things that seemed to really differentiate identical twins. One of them is the gut microbiome, [...] the bacteria mainly in your gut [...] and the other is your food, your nutrition.”
ZOE’s science pointed to the gut microbiome – the unique collection of bacteria and other microorganisms found in each of our digestive tracts – as a key factor in individual health. That’s where the company concentrates its efforts.
The rest of this post is open to members of Exponential View only. Here I cover:
How ZOE uses machine learning to generate custom nutrition advice.
How startups are changing the speed and scale of scientific research.
Whether expanding into other health services is in ZOE’s future.