Ara Katz is a mother, serial entrepreneur, advisor, and angel investor who is using probiotics to improve human and planetary health. As the founder of Seed Health, she’s pioneering applications of microbes for both humans and the environment. She spearheaded the company’s $40 million fundraising to accelerate research and development and the company’s pipeline beyond gut microbiome into microbial applications across dermatology, oral hygiene, pediatrics, women’s health, infant health and nutrition. Inspired by her conversations about the microbiome with her son, she wrote A Kids Book About Your Microbiome to give kids (and grownups) a whole new way to see their bodies. Katz sat down with Jessica Abo to discuss her journey, the importance of gut health, her new book, and her advice for other entrepreneurs.
Jessica Abo: What inspired you to create a microbiome health and sciences company?
Ara Katz: I was working in mobile commerce and had built a brand called Spring that I was proud to be part of, and I had a miscarriage. And I think it was just a real moment where I thought a lot about, “Now that I know how to do all these things and raise capital and run teams, what would I want to put out in the world? What do I want to do with that?”
I think you have these certain moments, pivot points in your life, where you decide that you really want to create something that’s not just meaningful and sustainable, but also could really make an impact on the world and leave it a little better than you found it.
I met my co-founder when I got pregnant, very shortly after my miscarriage. We spent a lot of time really thinking about what it meant to create impact and what was the right way to go about that. I think we both realized that this new framework of microbiome was going to change everything.
I just want to say, I’m so sorry for your loss. And I’m so happy for you that you went on to become pregnant. Tell me, why do you think it is so important for us to prioritize our gut health?
The microbiome is actually much greater than just the gut. It happens to be that the gut is where the most dense ecosystem of the body exists, but we also have a microbiome in our mouth. We have a microbiome of our skin. We have a microbiome of our noses, of our eyes even. And for women, the vaginal microbiome.
And each of those ecosystems is very connected to incredibly critical functions that maintain our health. And the gut microbiome is certainly one of the areas in the microbiome that has been the most robustly researched today because of how diverse of an ecosystem it is. But also, because it is connected to so many different organ systems (what they call axes) that impact the function of everything from our gut-brain axis. Of course, I think a lot of people don’t understand the gut and its role in gastrointestinal health and digestive health.
But now, we’re starting to understand areas like the gut-liver axis and the way that the gut plays a role in maintaining cholesterol levels in the body. Or the way that the gut has an axis with the lungs, and how that impacts respiratory health. And certainly, I think one of the most important —particularly in the context of COVID and why it really has become front and center — is because of its role in our immune health. We are also learning about the role of the gut itself, both geographically (where so much of our immune system is based) as well as how microbes and the microbiome play such a critical role in the health of our immune system.
Identifying from a very early age, being trained to help our immune system know if something is friend or foe. And certainly, the lifestyle factors that we choose — whether it’s nutrition, or sleep, or exercise, whether or not we take antibiotics, and how we process stress. All of those things impact our microbiome, which in turn have systemic implications on the body.
It seems like everywhere I go, these days I see products promising to improve gut health. What do you think consumers need to know?
It’s challenging because, particularly in the U.S., you can use the term on everything from tortilla chips to chocolate to pillowcases. Now in science, to have a probiotic effect has a very specific definition. This is what we adhere to and certainly, the term that we are really trying to steward at Seed.
So, there are things that you can start to look for, particularly in a probiotic on the label of whether or not they say the full strain, or they just say the species. It’s important to look up that strain, and understand whether or not it’s been studied in human clinical research to have efficacy.
But I think there are also other cues you can start to see — in particular when companies, products, brands, fads or diets are starting to promise anything that feels really sensational. Or you start to see things where they’re using language around diseases. That may be an indication that the company might be taking some liberties which could mean that the product itself may not actually be that effective.
What’s different about your product?
There’s a few attributes of the product that I think are really important to call out that aren’t just why our product is different, but also things that consumers should look for in a probiotic. The first is the adherence to the scientific definition, which means that all strains that have been studied in human clinical research, and that they’re included in the formulation in the appropriate dosage, and further that the claims in the benefit language are very specific to the endpoint or the benefit that the strain in human clinical research was studied for.
Then, there’s the digestive and gastrointestinal health benefits. I think a lot of people say, “Well, it makes you poop great.” But of course, there’s some really interesting science behind that. And beyond that, there are some really interesting benefits around immune health. Your gut barrier function and gut barrier integrity are incredibly important and a really interesting way that probiotics can work if they properly move through the GI tract.
There is a strain in our synbiotic that also has been studied for cardiovascular health: working on the gut liver access that has to do with the prevention of reuptake of cholesterol circulating amongst the body, which is really, really interesting. Dermatological health is a benefit as well with the dampening of specific inflammatory responses that probiotics can play a role in with the gut skin axis.
And then probably the most interesting and novel finding that we just published about is micronutrient synthesis, which is the ability for microbes to help synthesize specific nutrients that our human cells cannot make on their own. The success of DS-01™️ can be, in part, also be attributed to our carefully researched, engineered and patented dry capsule-in-capsule delivery system — ViaCap® — which provides exceptional stability, bacterial viability, and has remarkable heat and humidity tolerance.
To add, DS-01 is a synbiotic — meaning it’s a probiotic plus a prebiotic. It includes 24 strains of probiotics, and the prebiotic comes from punicalagin — a compound that comes from the skin of pomegranate which works in a very specific way with your microbes to produce something called short-chain fatty acids.
Because of that delivery system, we have been able to demonstrate 100% survivability and viability of our cells to the end of the intestines into the colon, which is really where you want the maximum delivery to be for a probiotic to be effective.
And tell us about your children’s book.
Yes, I did write a book called A Kids Book About your Microbiome. Really, the book was reflective of the way we do everything at Seed, which is education first. So much of our belief about our bodies and our health and the way we see the world and the way we grow up making choices has to do with the language that we hear as children. The way we learn these very concepts early on — at young ages sometimes. The idea that kids could learn about this whole invisible world that they have inside of them and at the same time give parents another way to get them to eat their vegetables. It was really an exciting opportunity to start to teach kids about these trillions of invisible friends that live inside of them, that work really hard to keep them healthy. Learning about these things at a young age can help them to develop skills early on, and foster a friendly microbiome environment so that microbes can do their job.
Finally, what’s your advice for other entrepreneurs out there who are building a business in consumer health and science.
When you are telling someone something about their body and their health, and you know how many people are out there looking for answers who feel hopeless, suffer, have different conditions, or are really trying to figure things out, do not take advantage of what they do not know.
Don’t make sensationalized claims. Don’t just do what your lawyer says you can get away with, with benefits, language and structure function claims. Really think about who you’re speaking to and do it with accountability — that, I think we should all have. And I think when you put out information as a brand, there is just a deep, deep responsibility for accountability that I hope people feel.