An entrepreneur who loves moonshots is at it again.

Naveen Jain is co-founder of Moon Express, a company that hopes to mine the moon for resources. That company hasn't yet reached the moon (though it's scheduled to happen this year) and already Jain is starting his next audacious venture: Viome, a health care company that aims to use artificial intelligence to try to improve customers' health. The Bellevue, Washington-based company is launching its services on Wednesday.

Viome claims that with proper diet and nutrition, people can fight off the chronic diseases to which they're most susceptible. The company says that by analyzing a person's molecular makeup and microbiome--the collection of trillions of microbes within the gut--it can tailor a diet to fit his or her needs.

For $999 per year up front or $99 monthly, customers will use a kit sent by the company each quarter to take blood, urine, stool, and saliva samples, and then send them back for testing. Using microbiome analysis technology first developed in Los Alamos Lab to combat disease warfare, the company takes the samples and creates RNA and metabolic profiles for each customer. Artificial intelligence then helps make dietary recommendations, like whether a person should eat more beets or broccoli or reduce their intake of fava beans, as well as suggestions for what vitamins and supplements to take.

Jain notes that Parkinson's and Alzheimer's start 10 or 15 years before patients see the first symptoms. "What if you could help find the earliest possible biomarker and essentially find a way to prevent it from happening so you never see the symptoms?"

"We were really thinking about: How can we fundamentally create a world where sickness is optional?" Jain says. "What if we can prevent every chronic disease from happening?"

Studies have suggested that certain diets, especially those that contain whole grains, fish, and nuts, might help protect the brain, according to the Alzheimer's Association. That said, the premise of Viome rests on claims that are as yet unproven, according to experts in the field.

"In general, diet and exercise can help lower risk and potentially prevent many chronic diseases, but we are not at the point where illness is optional," says Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a professor at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, whose research focuses on the roles of nutrition and genetics in human illnesses. "From the perspective of established science, that goal seems a ways off."

Giovannucci points out that while healthy dieting generally leads to better health and fewer chronic conditions, it is difficult to forecast results for any one individual.

"If, for example, you follow 1,000 people who have a healthy lifestyle and 1,000 who don't," he says, "without question there will be many more chronic diseases that develop in the 1,000 who don't have a healthy lifestyle. But we have limited ability to predict specifically who will or will not develop disease."

Adam Drewnowski, a professor of nutritional sciences in the University of Washington's epidemiology department, says that while the gut microbiome is an exciting and budding area of study, there is little hard science on how it might influence specific conditions. "It's very new and very controversial," he says. "There are some very interesting links that are currently being established. But to [suggest] that microbiome imbalance causes something like Alzheimer's at this point, I would think, is something of an overstatement."

In response to Drewnowski's comments, Jain pointed Inc. to two studies that claim that microbiome "may" be a factor in the development of degenerative diseases.

Despite the lack of medical consensus, Viome isn't the only company looking to analyze microbiome to improve health. Israeli startup DayTwo, set to launch this spring, will charge a $299 signup fee, plus a to-be-determined monthly subscription fee, to analyze stool samples and create a personalized nutrition app that will provide meal recommendations.

Other startups, like Arivale and Habit, are using similar screening methods to help customers optimize their diets. Arivale connects customers with a nutritional coach, while Habit adds the option of meal delivery.

Viome arguably leans more heavily on artificial intelligence. Soon, the company wants to add an A.I.-based feature that gives users recipe suggestions based on their needs and preferences. Eventually, it wants the platform to be able to inform a user which items on a restaurant's menu would be the best fit for his or her dietary needs. Viome recently hired Guruduth Banavar, the former head of cognitive computing at IBM Research who spent years working on Watson, to lead its A.I. efforts. Down the line, Jain says, it will be seeking FDA approval so it can use its technology to diagnose diseases.

The startup's chief medical scientist is Helen Messier, a doctor who was most recently working for Human Longevity, a health startup. Momo Vuyisich, the company's chief scientist, led the team that developed the technology at Los Alamos Lab, which co-owns the technology along with the startup.

Viome is the first subsidiary of BlueDot, another company founded by Jain, which will focus on licensing technology from research labs. BlueDot has $10 million in funding from investors including CerraCap Ventures, Gold Ventures, and a variety of entrepreneurs.

Jain says the company began beta testing with customers earlier this month. As for the doubters--he thinks they'll be proven wrong.

"People said Moon Express was a crazy idea, and we're within months of going to the moon for under $10 million," he says. "Every single idea, the day before the breakthrough, seems like a crazy idea."

Published on: May 24, 2017