Jain said the new cash, which brings the Seattle-area startup’s total funding to $45 million, would be used to fund research into the link between the human microbiome and chronic diseases including diabetes, autoimmune disorders and Parkinson’s, as well as cancers.
“We are now doing a bunch of clinical studies with 15 or so separate diseases,” said Jain. The aim of the studies, which are looking at diseases as wide-ranging as insomnia and pancreatic cancer, is to “understand exactly what’s happening inside the human body so that we can predict, prevent and reverse chronic diseases,” he said.
Viome analyzes its customers’ microbiomes through stool samples in order to make food recommendations for health or weight loss. The idea is to foster health through microbes, which make up more than half of the cells in the human body.
The funding round included return investor Bold Capital as well as Physician Partners, Hambrecht Healthcare Growth Venture Fund, and Matthew Harris of Global Infrastructure Partners. Viome said the financing was part of a series B round in which the company aims to raise $100 million.
“People are investing because we’re solving a massive problem,” Jain said. “[Benioff] is a very happy customer and he said, ‘I want to be part of it.'”
The Salesforce CEO has shown an interest in mental health and wellness, adding meditation rooms to the Salesforce offices and investing in Thrive Global, a wellness startup founded by Arianna Huffington. A spokesperson for Benioff declined to comment when contacted by GeekWire.
Jain says the company’s competitive edge lies in its RNA sequencing technology, which emerged from defense work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Viome uses machine learning algorithms with the aim of predicting the body’s response to certain foods based on the composition of an individual’s microbiome.
Researchers cast doubt
These claims have drawn criticism. Jonathan Eisen, a professor at UC Davis, called Viome the “Theranos of the microbiome world” on Twitter last year, referencing Elizabeth Holmes’ blood testing startup that became infamous for false claims about its technology.
“My issue with Viome was overstating the state of the science,” Eisen told GeekWire. “There’s no scientific support for any of their tools.”
The Viome material on Amazon is filled with completely misleading overselling snake oil – e.g. they claim they can tell you "exactly which foods to eat and which to avoid in order to support your wellness" https://t.co/M682nWj5BY #SnakeOil #Scam pic.twitter.com/FUmeGVq2f2
— Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics) February 19, 2019
In the early 2000s, Jain faced intense backlash for claims he made about InfoSpace, a high-flying internet business that fell to earth during the dot-com bust. Jain later went on to co-found public records firm Intelius as well as Moon Express, which aims to take paying customers to the moon.
Jain responded to the criticism by saying that Viome’s underlying technology is superior to the microbiome sequencing technology used by other companies. Eisen once served as an advisor to Viome competitor uBiome.
Several startups have set out to give health insights based on an analysis of gut bacteria, including Second Genome and Day Two. And the promise of the microbiome has caught the attention of investors. Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee, famous for coining the term “Unicorn” to describe billion-dollar startups, recently published a blog post about the brain-gut connection and her own dietary experiments.
“Changes in diet can modulate the microbiome and have an effect on health,” said Sean Gibbons, an assistant professor at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. But Gibbons said it’s too early to draw conclusions about the specific effect of individual foods on a person’s health.
“For anyone to claim that there’s a general purpose algorithm that can predict health from the microbiome is sort of a sci-fi, weird claim to make this point,” he said.
Prominent endorsements for Viome
That’s not to say that tinkering with the microbiome doesn’t have potential. Fecal transplants, which insert gut bacteria from healthy people into sick patients, have proven to be remarkably effective at curing C. diff, a bacteria that infects nearly 500,000 Americans each year.
Viome has received endorsements from health and wellness celebrities like Deepak Chopra and Dr. Mehmet Oz, as well as Dr. Mark Hyman. The startup recently partnered with Helomics, a precision medicine company, to study the link between the gut microbiome and ovarian cancer.
Viome acquired personalized nutrition service Habit from Campbell Soup earlier this year for an undisclosed sum. The company has nearly 150 employees across six locations, including its headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. and offices in San Diego, Santa Clara, Calif., New York, Bangalore and Los Alamos, N.M.
Viome is Jain’s seventh venture and the first to come out of his Bellevue-based BlueDot innovation factory. BlueDot looks for market opportunities for technology developed at leading research labs, with a focus on the health and energy sectors.