Research on the human microbiome — microorganism communities that live in a part of your body such as your mouth or gut — has led to a number of insights and spurred further investigations into what makes up a healthy person. Combined with the continuing interest in alternative medicine, that is leading to some venture dollars getting channeled into at least one prominent startup in the space. Viome — which has built a business out of assessing customers’ microbiomes, applying AI to the data and using that to provide them with supplements and other guidance based on the findings — has raised $86.5 million to expand its business.
The funding, a Series C, is being co-led by Khosla Ventures and Bold Capital, with other unnamed current and new investors also participating. The company claims that its RNA sequencing technology, which was originally developed out of research from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “is clinically validated, fully automated, exclusively licensed by Viome [to analyze] biological samples at least 1,000 times greater than other technologies.”
The company, based out of Bellevue, Washington, and founded in 2016, says that it has run tests for some 350,000 consumers from 106 countries (primarily the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia) to date, working out to some 600,000 samples that are feeding and informing its algorithm.
Its plan is to use the equity funding both to expand existing business — which includes tests based on samples of a person’s blood, stools and saliva, vitamin supplements and assessments around diet — as well as to break into new areas. That will include new product lines around mouth and dental health, and retail partnerships, including a deal with CVS that will see the pharmacy chain offer Viome tests in some 200 stores in the U.S.
The CVS deal — in which CVS is buying kits in a wider revenue share agreement — will not include CVS investing in Viome, CEO and founder Naveen Jain (the entrepreneur who founded Infospace in the first wave of dot-com startups, helped judge the XPrize and more) said in an interview.
“They believe that more and more people are becoming gut-health conscious and they want to sell the product in their store,” to address that, he added, downing some of what he told me were his own custom-designed capsules (a mix of pre- and probiotics and vitamins) while talking to me.
Viome is not disclosing its valuation, but to date it has raised $175 million and was last valued in 2022 (when it disclosed a new $67 million in funding) at $339 million, according to PitchBook data. That valuation “has not gone down,” Jain said, but he would not give an updated number. Investors in the company have included Marc Benioff, a healthcare investor called Better Health Group and SquareOne Capital, among others.
Viome’s raise and plans to grow come amid a critical moment for companies like it, playing in the crossover of healthcare, technology, biotech and changing consumer sentiments.
In countries like the U.S., as standard medical services continue to get more expensive covering an ever-wider set of conditions, we’re seeing a growing population of consumers swing toward what they see as complementary, or even replacements, for pursuing the former route.
(The pursuit of alternative remedies is not always innocuous or complementary; it has had its mix of controversial chapters: During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, skepticism or full-out rejection of big medicine led to a wave of people refusing to take vaccines, pushing bogus remedies and a tsunami of fake news related to both of those.)
While Viome in some ways seems to sit squarely in the category of alternative medicine with its focus on vitamin supplements tailored to a particular person’s needs, and the idea that you can cure certain ailments by providing these and guidance after analyzing an individual’s particular microbiome and other physical details, in other ways it markets itself as a startup that exists on the back of the advances afforded by advances in technology.
There is the fact that its original insights come out of Los Alamos and its focus on RNA gene expression — an approach that it says “enables us to provide individuals with recommendations that can be effective, dynamic and relevant to their current state of health,” but also its use of AI.
“Viome has been an AI company from day 1 and is not something we adopted now,” a company spokesperson told me. “Viome’s platform was designed to analyze and interpret massive amounts of biological data using AI and machine learning technologies.” The company claims to have “the world’s largest database of RNA sequencing data from >600,000 samples from our customers and clinical research participants. When combined with rich clinical metadata (medications, symptoms, diagnoses, etc.), Viome has >52 petabytes (quadrillion) of data.”
In turn Viome interprets that data, it says, using “modern AI, machine learning and bioinformatics methods running on massive cloud computing…to identify what is important for human health, and translate those findings into personalized nutritional recommendations for each customer.” It claims to have more than 35 predictive models of chronic diseases including diabetes, obesity, depression, IBS and IBD, and says it has FDA breakthrough device designation “for its ability to detect early-stage cancer in the mouth and throat using saliva with 95% specificity and over 90% sensitivity.”
But not all is completely smooth sailing in this space. At least one company — uBiome, previously thought of as a peer and competitor to Viome — was investigated and eventually indicted by the government over how it ran its business, covering not only its efforts to defraud insurance companies, but also how it skirted regulations, lied to investors and others, ran and charged for unnecessary tests and overall did not provide what it claimed to provide.
There are in fact dozens of other startups building products and services around microbiome research, and one big question mark for scientists in the field is whether microbiome research can so easily be lined up with conclusions and treatments as it has been by companies like Viome.
“Every time I have looked at what Viome is claiming to do, it has unquestionably made statements that are completely misleading and not representative of the science in the field or [even] of the science that they have shown themselves,” Dr. Jonathan Eisen, a professor at University of California, Davis, and a specialist in medical microbiology and genomics, said in an interview.
Eisen once called the company the “Theranos of Microbiome Studies” and dug in deeper over time — before, he tells me, he was sidetracked by a certain pandemic. “I have been not doing a lot of ‘Overselling the microbiome’ related posts recently largely because I was doing double duty working on COVID,” he told me separately over email. “But I am starting to get back into microbiome communications issues and I can say that the #1 most egregiously misleading group / company / entity I have seen recently is Viome. I am bombarded with their ads and all seem to be misleading, scientifically inaccurate, and bad.”
When I mentioned Eisen to Jain, Jain’s response was to tell me that the professor worked for a competitor, a claim Eisen dismissed, saying he was never paid to make any comment, and that although he once did sit on the Scientific Advisory Board of uBiome he said he resigned around 2016 because he “did not like what they were doing in this space from a marketing point of view” (with the company later facing more issues that got them into much bigger trouble with the Feds).
Eisen noted that although what Viome has built for diagnostics is notable and useful potentially for the study of microbiomes, that’s not the same as the extensive testing needed around the building of treatments for different conditions. “They still have no evidence that they can take and identify what is wrong or right from microbiome data,” he said.