Most startup founders harbor dreams of an IPO, a billion-dollar acquisition, hobnobbing with the techerati elite. Takuji Yamada’s dream is different. It is, quite literally, to go to shit.
Yamada, a biology and statistics professor, is getting his hands, erm, dirty, with his Japanese startup, Metagen. Still in its early days, Metagen’s focus is data reaped from the under-loved gut microbiome. He sees the 100 trillion bacterial cells in our body as not just untapped scientific research, but also a business opportunity. Especially the organisms populating your stomach — the gut microbiome, which may affect everything from bowel movements to autism. For now, his team’s raising money to research this oft-neglected body part, but one element of the grand plan is to engineer a supersmart toilet that can catch a whiff of your gut’s health, offering real-time data in the same vein as quantified-self technology like FitBits or home-genetic testing. Creating that toilet is a major, perhaps insurmountable challenge, but as he shoots for it, 38-year-old Yamada is hoping to change the research landscape for our undiscovered “brown gems.” The final goal, Yamada says, is creating gut conditions that can make all humans healthy.
It’s fitting that such an idea would emerge from Japan, where the average john comes equipped with heated seats and attached sinks to ensure you wash your hands. But the microbiome craze is taking off throughout Asia, Europe and the U.S. — in May, the White House approved $121 million in microbiome research funding, backed by the Gates Foundation. Some enthusiasm stems from a 2006 research in which a scientist fed mice fecal samples from obese and non-obese people. The mice that ate waste from heftier subjects developed signs of obesity; not so for those that sampled skinnier folks’ poo. While no one’s suggesting humans should eat feces, the experiment confirmed suspicions that gut microbiota hold clues to help us revamp our diets, offering new info on diabetes, colon cancer, intestinal bowel disease and more.
We know our average body temperatures, but do you know your gut microbiome conditions on any given day?
“I think it’s a really great idea!” exclaims Emma Allen-Vercoe, professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, of Yamada’s latrine dream. “I don’t think it’s that far off … but it would be a very expensive toilet,” she says. Chief among the design challenges: What numbers would the toilet share with you? Microbiota assessments don’t yield a single biomarker; rather, Allen-Vercoe explains, a stool sample could show over 200 different classifications. We picture needing a flat-screen with the world’s most intricate scoreboard to quantify your bowel movements. Within the research community, she says, there’s a dearth of international standards in a field analyzing “one of the most complex communities in the world. … We can’t handle data until we’re unified on what’s really there,” she explains. The world may be ready, but “science may not be ready” for the labyrinthine data maze, she adds. “We’re used to having everything under our control.”
Yamada and his partner, 38-year-old Shinji Fukuda, have secured funding from the Asian incubator Leave a Nest and pocketed the inaugural Bioscience Grand Prix at a contest in Tokyo. Aware of the trials they face — for one, extracting bacterial DNA from fecal samples means freezing them, and who wants poop in their freezer? — Yamada’s divagated from the potty idea, for now. They’ll turn to venture capitalists when it’s time to cover the high cost of building hardware (which may be years away, Yamada says, deferring specifics), but till then, their business model hinges on selling data to health-related companies. Metagen’s already offering testing and data to companies — think makers of probiotic yogurt or health supplements — seeking scientific proof of their products’ health benefits.
One client, Yukimasa Tanaka-Azuma, chief technical officer of the pharmaceutical and dietary supplement company Morishita Jintan, writes OZY that Metagen’s information about bacterial flora is helping his business test its capsules. Discussions of probiotics previously focused on digestive health, he says, but he claims the company is beginning to see health benefits like mental activity. (Other research has not replicated these small studies.) Yamada also hopes to offer information to laypeople by way of a public database chronicling how various foods might affect one’s gut, and offering customized diet recommendations. The key is getting intimate with your own data, he says: We know our average body temperatures, but “do you know your gut microbiome conditions” on any given day? Nope. Plus, he notes, with a scientist’s skepticism: “It’s easy to be tricked by people saying they have supplements to solve your problems.”
Yamada and his cofounder offer an interesting study in the trend toward academic researchers seeking private funding, from startups like Experiment.com to foundations. A bioinformatics expert — meaning he’s skilled at database construction — Yamada discovered that making “sustainable science” is difficult worldwide; despite initiatives like the White House’s, a chronic shortage of grant money prevents researchers from hiring more than one or two postdocs. Proof lies in a 2015 Pew Survey showing a majority of Americans’ support for science isn’t backed by a desire to increase research funding. A recent Boston University report suggests more researchers will turn to private sources.
Kyoto-raised Yamada forged his own path early on, in a nation that prizes conformity. He honed his English while researching in Germany and Boston and during a yearlong backpacking trip through the U.S., Mexico, Israel, Nepal, China and more. He harbors a fresh wonder about his work, touching his skin at one point to demonstrate the ubiquity of bacteria. “They really are … us,” he says, with true Beginner’s Mind marvel.