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Biotech start-up woos Watson machine-learning star from IBM

  • Viome is a biotech start-up that launched Wednesday to help people track their microbiome health.
  • Guruduth Banavar, former VP of cognitive computing at IBM, joins Viome as CTO.
  • Microbiome start-ups attracted more than $616 million in venture capital in 2016.

It may seem surprising that the star that built IBM's Watson artificial intelligence (AI) platform quit the corporate Goliath to work at Viome, a start-up launched Wednesday that aims to leapfrog medical breakthroughs in microbiome science.

However, this emerging field — that interprets the DNA record of trillions of bacteria that live in our body and regulate our immune system — has captured the imagination of the world's leading futurists, including Google's engineering director Ray Kurzweil and chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation Dr. Aubrey de Grey, who both sit on the private company's advisory board.

According to Guruduth Banavar, the former vice president of cognitive computing at IBM who is now Viome's chief technology officer, "It was an opportunity to apply years of machine-learning experience to a new field of medical science that can radically change human lives." As he explained, the ultimate goal is to create a better intelligence to pinpoint triggers of disease in the body and personalize medical treatment.

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It's a race to turn the trillions of bacteria in our body into medical breakthroughs. New research has revealed that the so-called microbiome — the DNA record of the trillions of bacteria that live in our digestive system, on our skin and throughout our body — help regulate our immune system, synthesize vitamins and aid in digestion. By exploiting this information, medical professionals at Viome and elsewhere will be able to diagnose, prevent and treat a variety of health conditions and diseases, such as infectious disease, autoimmune disorders, obesity and cancer.

Already, researchers have found a functional link between the bacteria in the gut and the onset of Parkinson's disease, one of the world's most debilitating brain disorders that affects 1 million people in the United States and up to 10 million globally. It is hoped the new information can be used to develop the next generation of probiotics and drugs.

Coronal view of a human brain in Parkinson's disease
Sherbrooke Connectivity Imaging Lab | Getty Images
Coronal view of a human brain in Parkinson's disease

The potential of this new science is attracting the attention of world's leading experts in machine learning, human longevity, and medicine — as well as investors. Venture capital funding in the sector has also soared over the last five years. In 2016 alone, more than $616 million in VC was raised for microbiome companies. Among them: Kallyope, a company that uses human genetics to understand gut-brain biology, backed by such investors as Lux Capital and Polaris Partners; and Evelo Therapeutics, an upstart that seeks to create microbiome therapies to treat cancer that got funding from Flagship Ventures.

Newcomer Viome — a start-up backed by Blue Dot, an innovation factory founded by serial tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain — is reengineering billion-dollar technology developed at Los Alamos National Lab that understands every strain of bacteria in the gut and blood. "For the first time, we can look at the bacteriophage, the viruses that impact our bacteria and microorganisms to know exactly what they are doing," says Dr. de Grey.

The company offers consumers a wellness service — home-testing kits and an app tool — that does in-depth gut analysis using artificial intelligence to evaluate complex biological data.

"We look at the biochemical activity of the trillions of microbes in your gut and your metabolic activity to determine the unique way your body processes food," explains Naveen Jain, Viome's founder and CEO. The results are then translated into personalized and detailed recommendations for diet and healthy living. Powered by an app called Vie, the Viome service gives users personalized wellness tips daily and tracks their evolving health status.

Helen Messier, Viome's chief medical scientist notes that about 80 percent of medical conditions in the United States are chronic diseases, and our health system hasn't caught up to the problem. "Autoimmune diseases and allergies are skyrocketing due to an overuse of antibiotics that destroy the microbiomes in our guts and GI tracts that control our immune systems. Traditional medical tests, like a GI test or colonoscopy, cannot track this microbe and metabolic imbalance."

"My hope is that Viome will help advance personalized medicine by using deep machine learning to uncover the root cause of many diseases," says Dr. de Grey, who is known for his work on trying to reverse the aging process. "The study of the microbiome is in its infancy, but it's so important, since most of the cells in the human body are foreign microbes that affect the bloodstream and our overall health."

Cracking the microbiome connection to disease could be key to keeping cells healthy and youthful. Scientists are hopeful this new frontier in medicine will lead to important breakthroughs.

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