Naveen Jain has never been shy about tackling big problems.
The serial entrepreneur's latest venture, Viome, an at-home gut microbiome test, will soon expand into testing for chronic diseases and cancer. The company recently created a new health sciences division that will focus on early diagnostics, therapeutics, and using A.I. to predict the early warning signs of disease.
Viome is the seventh of Jain's companies, which include Moon Express, a private space travel company that has yet to complete its first mission, and internet company Infospace, which was briefly one of the largest tech companies in the Northwest before the dot-com bust.
The Indian-born American billionaire's attraction to big problems like curing cancer or sending a robotic spaceship to the moon has led to comparisons to Elon Musk. And, like Musk, he has drawn his share of controversy and attracted a large fan club.
Jain has plenty of advice for the ambitious. He urges entrepreneurs to assess their business idea by sizing up its potential market and its impact. For example, ask yourself: Would your business help a billion people live a better life? In other words, if your business ends up solving the problem that it sets out to tackle, how many lives are going to be better because of it?
"If there are a billion people whose lives are going to be better, then you have a massive market," he says. "And you'll have to find a way to create that enterprise."
For every moonshot or far-out idea, Jain says, he asks himself three questions before he goes further.
- Why this?
- Why now?
- And why me?
In the case of Viome, the "why this" part was easy. Jain knew that chronic diseases are one of the leading causes of death and affect billions of people globally. Some scientists believe that the gut microbiome--the trillions of microorganisms that live within every human--play an important role in influencing these diseases. The food you eat can benefit your microbiome. But if everyone's microbiome is different, how do you find the right foods for you? That's where Viome steps in. The company's at-home gut health test scores your microbiome's health according to 20 different factors.
Jain says his thinking was: "What if we can solve and reverse the problem of chronic disease? Would it help a billion people live a better life?" The entrepreneur's instinct, which proved correct, was that a vast market existed for people who wanted to unlock the secrets of their microbiome, hoping to stave off cancer, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, and other chronic diseases.
When asking "Why me?" Jain says, entrepreneurs should make sure that they're prepared to offer a unique solution to the problem. "Is the question you're asking different from what everyone in the industry is asking?" says Jain.
To figure out whether it's the right time to launch a business, Jain says, entrepreneurs need to predict the future to some extent. Ask yourself: What will change in the next two to five years that will allow you to more easily solve the problem?
In the case of Viome, the "when" part took a bit of luck. First launched in 2016, Viome emerged as an early player in the then-burgeoning home diagnostics industry, which includes testing behemoths like Abbott Diagnostics and Quest Diagnostics, as well as newer at-home testing companies like 23andMe and Everlywell. Advances in lab technology meant that the costs of analyzing a blood or a stool sample were declining. When Viome launched, it cost roughly $43 to process a sample in a lab. Currently, analyzing a sample costs $2.
"That's the power of exponential technologies," says Jain. "When something is on an exponential curve, and you think you're being 10 times more optimistic, you actually turned out to be seven to 10 times pessimistic, because technology is moving that fast." The Covid-19 pandemic further accelerated the growth of the at-home testing market, which grew by 14 percent in 2020, according to market research firm Brand Essence Market Research.
Jain says that the pandemic forced many people to take their health more seriously. Changes in daily habits, like mask wearing and social distancing, altered people's mindsets about how their actions can impact their health. Viome took note.
"What we realized is that we can actually empower people to take control over their health, if we give them the right tools," he says.
Viome's next step will be to offer customers a way to detect early signs of cancer. In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Viome's oral cancer and throat cancer screening tool, which uses mRNA analysis to identify cancer in saliva samples. Thanks to the Covid-19 vaccines, Jain says, the concept of mRNA is now much more well-known to investors and the public. Biotech companies are exploring how mRNA technology can be used to create new drugs, vaccines, and treatments.
"As an entrepreneur, what I learned is to never stop dreaming big. Because your imagination is the only limit to what you can achieve. The sky is not the limit," he says. "The sky is simply a figment of your imagination."