Ara Katz is Using Microbes to Improve Human and Planetary Health

By Liam Satre Meloy
We caught up with Ara about Seed's pioneering uses of microbes, fascinating new research on the "whole body biome," and how living medicines will disrupt the way we approach disease.

Ara Katz is the co-founder and co-CEO of Seed, an innovative biotech startup that’s developing novel uses of bacteria to improve human and planetary health. Prior to Seed, Ara co-founded Spring, a mobile e-commerce marketplace acquired in 2018 by ShopRunner, and served on the founding team of BeachMint. She’s a fellow at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Future Storytelling and CCA’s DesignMBA program and was named to Marie Claire’s “50 Most Influential Women in America,” and Business Insiders’s “Silicon Alley Top 100.”

With a line of precision probiotics hitting the market next year, and a pipeline of groundbreaking microbe-based health interventions soon to follow, Seed is at the cutting edge of the fight to heal not just our bodies but also our planet.

Seed co-founders Ara and Raja Dhir

Good bacteria… You’ve heard it before: bacteria, once villains to be vanquished by antibiotics, are actually essential to our health. In fact, new research is uncovering just how important our microbes are, from regulating inflammation and calibrating our immune response to synthesizing key vitamins, metabolites and neurotransmitters.

“A pipeline for the whole-body biome...” In partnership with leading scientific minds, Seed is developing an array of consumer probiotics and live biotherapeutics to target specific body sites and life stages in which the microbiome impacts human health. Helping to lead the charge is Dr. Gregor Reid, Seed’s Chief Scientist, who chaired the World Health Organization Expert Panel that authored the definition of “probiotic.”

The probiotics problem… There’s a lot of misleading marketing and hyperbolized claims in the business of selling probiotics. “If people think that every time they drink kombucha in their back yard or eat ‘probiotic potato chips’ they’re getting probiotics, the term itself becomes incredibly diluted. So we wanted to make a product that cut through the noise and brought scientific efficacy and rigor.”

Probiotic 16x9 2

“Daily Synbiotic…” Seed’s first consumer product combines probiotics and prebiotics in one capsule, with different formulations for men and women. The probiotics are clinically-verified, naturally-occurring strains that are not found in yogurt, most supplements, or fermented foods and beverages. The prebiotics are sourced from Indian pomegranate and Scandinavian chaga mushroom and pine bark. (Use code SUMMIT15 for 15% off.)

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Setting a new standard… The Daily Synbiotic is the first probiotic to confer benefits beyond digestive health, including heart, skin, and reproductive health, gut immune function, and oxidative stress. The female formulation is also the first to increase endogenous folate production. (If you want to take a deep dive into the outcomes of Seed’s clinical trials on humans, read on here.)

In the pipeline… Seed has a line of forthcoming precision probiotic products that will focus on immune health and are anticipated to hit the market next year. The probiotics are targeted at specific indications, including immune-regulated irritations of the airway (like allergies). They’re also working on a product that targets the skin microbiome, a probiotic intended for oral health, and a re-invention of infant formula.

A pharma alternative… Armed with new research, Ara sees an opportunity to offer microbes as an alternative intervention to traditional pharmaceuticals, reducing the down-stream damage and side effects that often accompany those kinds of drugs. “With asthmatic airway allergies, there's a company who'd like you to pop Allegra two or three times a day. So the idea that microbes may replace or reduce the need for use of those drugs is really, really impactful.”

Seed Health Foundry... As if setting a new standard in consumer probiotics wasn't enough, Ara recently announced Seed's first biotech spinoff, called LUCA Biologics. Partnering with Dr. Jacques Ravel, a groundbreaking researcher in the field of women’s health, LUCA will develop live biotherapetuics to address widespread, unmet medical needs in female populations.

Targeting women's health... “The next couple of indications that we’ll be focused on are bacterial vaginosis and preterm birth, which are issues that have no primary standard of care without a lot of downstream effects in the developing world." Antibiotics are currently the only treatment for urinary tract infections, and many strains of bacteria are developing antibiotic resistance.

Saving the planet with microbes... SeedLabs is Seed's ecological R+D arm, founded to develop novel applications of bacteria. Current research efforts include developing probiotic strains that boost honeybee immune resilience to insecticides, increase agricultural growth rates and crop-yields, produce nutrient-dense food in outer space, and even plastic alternatives.

Giving probiotics to bees... Seed has developed a BioPatty™ that delivers probiotic strains to insects through a pathway that's used to adapt to infection, heat, and other stresses. Early trials are showing immense potential in tempering the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides, improving survival rates, and restoring honey bee populations around the world.

Honey Bee Probiotic (BioPatty)

"We are more than we think...” There are 38 trillion microorganisms, weighing three to five pounds, that live in and on our bodies, making up about 50% of us by cell count. “Once you understand that you are a thriving ecosystem -- like a coral reef or rainforest -- it’s like you’ve seen the matrix. The more we learn about the microbial world, the more we understand that we truly are of the environment.”

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A call to action… “The realization that each of us is this teeming ecosystem is both illuminating and daunting. But it’s also a real call to action. If you can reorient your sense of self and how we make decisions, you can change the world.”

Principles to live by...

• Think from first principles. “And by that I mean not accepting any existing framework as your limitation and not looking out it the world for confirmation to reinforce that view.”

• Practice non-attachment. "It's easier than it sounds."

• Be empathetic. “If I’m honest, this is the one I have to work on the most. Sometimes just being with your child is more important than helping women all over the world with urinary tract infections.”

Dining out advice… “The first thing to always ask yourself: ‘is this good for my microbes?’”

Connect with Ara... On Instagram @arakatz and on Twitter @arakatz

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