Geoffrey Woo and Jasmina Aganovic discuss the nuances of bringing a potentially controversial product to market, the theory behind why modern society is too clean for our good, and the role of the microbiome beyond cosmetics/dermatology (recent studies have shown that lower blood pressure is associated with a healthy microbiome).
Geoff: Hey, thinkers! Welcome to this week's THINKING Podcast by HVMN. I'm your host, Geoffrey Woo. And I'm really excited to have entrepreneur and chemical and biological engineer by training, Jasmina Aganovic on our show today. Welcome!
Jasmina: Thanks for having me! Excited to be chatting with you today.
Geoff: So, one of the big areas of excitement is around the microbiome. I think one of these interesting tidbits is there are more biome, microbiome, skin microbiome cells than human cells in our bodies. So, in a lot of ways, it's like a forgotten organ. Happy to have you on the show.
Jasmina: Yeah, yeah. Happy to give a history of our company and kind of why we are in the space that we are. For any of the entrepreneurs that are listening, I'm sure that the path never ends up in the place that you expect it to be, and ours is certainly that type of a story. It's interesting that you use the word 'forgotten organ.' Some people are calling it the 'new organ system.' They feel like it's the new organ system that's been discovered. In fact, some people are saying, "We thought that we had discovered and learned everything that we possibly could on Earth and that space exploration is really the next frontier." And yet, here it is, this invisible world that was literally right under our nose the entire time that we know very little to nothing about. So opening with that as just a general statement that there's some that we know, but there's a lot that we don't. And what we talk about as a company is making one of our core values speaking not beyond the science, being very direct and upfront about what we know, what's still conjecture, where we believe things can go, but really not talking past the science. So it's definitely a really fascinating space. It's been a huge learning experience for me, as well, and just seeing how the general public and academia together have been responding to it has been ... It's just a really interesting time.
Geoff: Yeah. I think that's right. I think when ... I mean, personally, just looking at the space, it seems that there's very promising indications for certain types of uses. I mean, from the very therapeutic side, looking at fecal transplants. Like, basically gut transplants of someone with a healthy gut microbiome, someone's that's sick, you do see interesting clinical case studies where people get really great outcomes. And I think the science is emerging and I think quite promising around how do we optimize for different microbiomes for different use cases, whether that's for skin, whether that's for athletic performance, cognitive performance. It seems like it is like a very tied-in organism that affects all these different types of existing quote-unquote "human normal systems."
Jasmina: Right, right. Absolutely. I think the other thing that's been surprising to me has to do with the speed with which interest is taking place and also with which it's been folded into not just rhetoric within the academic communities, but students today. So I went to MIT, I graduated not that long ago, in 2009, and so I still help out with some programs that I'm really passionate about there, with some of their engineering programs. And they are already folding in the microbiome into their curriculum for specific courses, and that's really interesting to me because the microbiome was not something that was talked about at all when I was at school. And for it to be, basically less than ten years later, and for it already to be folded into the undergraduate basic curriculum is I think a recognition of, hey, there's a lot that we don't know, but there's going to be something here, and it's really important that you start learning about it now. So it's surprising, but I think in good ways.
Geoff: Yeah, so you hinted at this interesting personal journey and how you got involved in productizing, commercializing, understanding the scope of the microbiome world. What is that personal story? I know that you run a company called Mother Dirt that's involved in productizing biome research. What is that personal story for you?
Jasmina: Yeah, so as I alluded to before, chemical and biological engineering was really what I studied. I was always fascinated by consumer products and specifically how something that is more technical is translated into a physical product that people interact with. That was a puzzle that I found to be really interesting and definitely, I guess it's my engineering brain that turns on, it's how do you translate, translate, translate, translate and not move too far away from the original story. Consumer products just happened to be a field that I was really interested in. Could be a lot of reasons for that.
Geoff: We're all consumers.
Jasmina: Could be because I was ... Right! Yeah, we all are. So that was why I headed down that direction. Worked at a few different brands, both on the product development and the R&D side. Started to get more of a reach into marketing and sales as I started to become really curious about how the work that I was doing in the lab was getting translated to the end consumer and what was driving those decisions. And about four years ago, I decided to take some time off, did a bunch of traveling, and towards the end of that, I met the folks here at AOBiome. It was at that time, I think just two people, three people.
Jasmina: They were working with this bacteria that had once existed on human skin and they were doing clinical research specifically for wound healing, but there were a lot of questions about the impact of modern chemistry, personal care products on this class of bacteria. It's very sensitive to surfactants, and it's obviously very sensitive to preservatives. If you think about inherently what preservatives are intended to do ...
Geoff: They kill bacteria.
Jasmina: They are supposed to prevent ... Yeah, bacterial growth, so there is anti-microbial activity there. And so I was talking to the team, they were gearing up to do a very simple cosmetic clinical study that entailed thirty people stopping use of all of their modern personal care products, taking water-only showers, and then dousing themselves with this live-culture of bacteria about twice a day. We measured a variety of endpoints, both visual endpoints. So what their skin was looking like, what their skin was feeling like, benefits that they perceived. So there were some things that weren't necessarily quantitative. And then we also sequenced their skin microbiomes. And that was a little bit of the beginning of what we were doing. I think we had a lot more questions than we did answers at that time, but the mentality and the interesting snapshot I'm giving you is when I was interviewing with a team and we were all trying to figure out if there was a role for me or if that was what I wanted to do with my career and blah blah blah.
Jasmina: So what ended up happening, one of the participants of that study wrote an article in the New York Times about this experience that she had. She gave it an incredibly cheeky title. It was like "My No Soap, No Shampoo, Bacteria-Rich, Hygiene Experiment." The article went live Memorial Day weekend of 2014, and it was I think the top-five most circulated article for the New York Times for about forty days.
Jasmina: So this generated so much interest at this time where I was talking to the company about what direction they could take their research in, and where are conversations landed was with the fact that this article in its widespread interest had shown that it wasn't just ...
Geoff: It was a huge market, right? Like, that proved out the market, essentially.
Jasmina: Totally! It wasn't just academics that were interested in it, it wasn't just researchers. This had ... Our Chief Medical Officer, Larry Weiss, talks about this article having struck on an unarticulated need.
Jasmina: And that really made us rethink how we structured the company. So where we landed with all of it has so much to do with where we are today, which is hey, this is hitting on some sort of chord that's out there. There is an important dialogue to be had here. We believe that this can fundamentally change how we view some fundamental elements of public health. Why not buy a consumer products brand and use our products as a vehicle to have this conversation? So it's more about the conversation than it is about the products or revenue, per se, but really what we would be doing is taking that revenue and funneling it to the clinical research that we're doing, which is where we started. So to date, we have two sides of our organization. We have the consumer-facing side, which as we know today, is Mother Dirt and that's the side that I'm responsible for. And then the other side, which is clinical research. And to date, we're doing two clinical studies with the FDA using this type of live bacteria as a potential drug.
Geoff: That's interesting. I think ... That's a lot of ... No, that's fascinating. So I believe how consumer package goods company will look like in the future, where I think today, most consumer product companies are marketing companies. Right? Like there's very little R&D. If you look at the balance sheets or their financial statements, literally like the line item for marketing is like 20, 30 percent, and like R&D, we're going to make organic version of the shampoo or the Gatorade or sports drink. And that always puzzled me as an entrepreneur as well. Like consumer package goods are a massive market and no one's actually doing fundamental research there. But if one were to do R&D as part of that spin, and I think that will be longterm the best marketing one can have. So it sounds like, essentially, there's like an arm of the organization that's running clinical studies, and I presume that Mother Dirt is the primary licensee or commercial partner for some of the IP that's developed in the original company. Something like that was what I'm interpreting.
Jasmina: Yeah, so we are technically structured as one company and one organization, so there's no licensing that's happening. Mother Dirt is really sort of the brand, but certainly we have had conversations about how to legally structure this as the two sides of the business really start to grow. And over the last two years, those conversations have been happening more and more often. But yeah, I mean, going back to what you were talking about with R&D and science, one of the things that I ... It's interesting to look at 2014 as a pivotal year in the world of the microbiome, particularly for the skin. We were already hearing about it for the gut, and probiotics had become more or less ubiquitous or something that was more commonplace. It had sort of, I wouldn't say 'saturated', but it wasn't an odd concept for people to think about. With the skin, the idea of a live bacteria on your skin is a little bit odd, and what typically happens with skincare is trends from food and other health-oriented things eventually trickle into skincare. The delay is like six to nine months, depending on how rapidly that particular trend is moving. And so in the case of probiotics, there was this fundamental mismatch from a formulation and an R&D perspective, which is that products that sit on a shelf for skincare, so your moisturizer, your cleanser, it's standard protocol to put a preservative in that thing to make sure that it can sit on the shelf for two years. And there, it immediately became possible for the skincare and personal care industry to not be able to interpret the word 'probiotic' as the World Health Organization has defined it. So they sort of created their own interpretation of it which is a, sometimes they use enzymatic byproduct, so not the actual microorganism itself, sometimes they use live-state, so like sort of chopped up. It isn't live bacteria by any means, but they use the word 'probiotic'. So when we were launching the mist, we needed to make very key strategic decisions about the balance of our vernacular. Are we going to use 'probiotic'? Are we going to use 'bacteria'? Are we going to use 'microorganism'? Because we didn't despite the fact that we wanted people to feel comfortable with it, we didn't want to dilute the novel nature of what we had.
Geoff: Yeah, there's definitely some education. I think that's the interesting thing with a lot of these emerging biological innovations, coming in and translating to the commercial market. Like, how do you educate people on nootropics, biohacking, live bacteria. I think one thing that struck me that was interesting was just looking from a historical trend, the rise of soap and surfactants, that saved a lot of lives in terms of people washing their hands. And that triggered now the ubiquity of all these anti-bacterial soaps, hand cleansers, body washes, shampoos. And now it's almost overreached, essentially, and we're in this weird zone where we're ... I guess the classic ideal before would have been, everyone should have sterile skin. That is just impossible given that everything has surface bacteria. So we're stripping the natural defenses. So I think it's interesting from a historical perspective. I think that very much aligns with our conversations around intermittent fasting or ketogenic diets, where I think a lot of our listeners who are fasters ... I mean, fasting was not considered fasting a thousand years ago. It was just normal eating patterns. Like there was feast and famine ...
Jasmina: Because you had no options, right? Yeah.
Geoff: Periods. Right? Yeah, we were designed to shift, burn through our glycogen stores, gain our ketosis, and never have this overload of readily available carbohydrate snacks on demand. And I think it seems like a very similar analog with skin and bacteria.
Jasmina: Yeah. Yeah, a few important things to add on to that. When we ... I mentioned earlier that we believe that this bacteria once existed on human skin, that it was a natural commensal, which is another thing that makes it different from other skin probiotics out there is that it's not the acidophilus, it's not the lactobacillus; these are probiotics, these are bacteria that are typically known in yogurt and food, but there's nothing evolutionarily to point to the fact that it once colonized human skin, that it was once naturally part of the skin's ecosystem. So there's that element to it. But the recency with which we believe we lost this bacteria is not as long ago as you think. We believe it's about 50 to 75 years, so we're not even talking much more past a single generation. And so, if you start to look at the rates with which ...
Geoff: Was the catalyst this notion of hygiene that ... Like soap, soap culture, like hygiene culture?
Jasmina: Yeah. So we jokingly refer ... So you're familiar, probably, with the germ theory of disease. So basically, bacteria causes disease, and now, the whole microbiome space is starting to prove that that's probably not the case. So we are starting to play with this term, the 'germ theory of health'. So this idea that microorganisms are a crucial part of a healthy ecosystem and that also, the human body is not nearly as siloed as the modern medical system has made it be. So the recency has a lot to do with how our lifestyles have changed. And so I know biohacking touches on this a ton. If you think about how we once lived as human beings, we were way more immersed in our external environment, in our natural environment.
Geoff: In the dirt, essentially.
Jasmina: In the dirt, right? So we were walking barefoot, swimming in lakes, rivers, and streams. But the whole point is we were outside, and this exposure to the outdoors was like a mini-inoculation every time we went outside. So we'd reduce significantly our exposure to the outdoors, and on top of that, we've integrated these products into our daily routines. A lot of modern chemistry, some of which has come with benefits ... So hand-washing is something that no one will ever contest, a really important advancement in human health and there's nothing about any of what we talk about that is trying to get people to move away from hand-washing, but when you take rigorous hygiene routines and you start applying it to every part of your body, that's when it gets into exactly what you had said, which is sort of overshooting and taking it a little bit too far. And where we end up, and I think the reason the article resonated with so many people, is that we're technically cleaner than ever and we have more product options than ever, and yet we have more inflammatory skin diseases than we ever did before. I think that the United States consumes more than 80 percent of the world's prescription medication for acne. So there's some pretty astounding statistics that are not where you would expect to have us end up considering the fact that people have been following what they have been told in terms of cleanliness and hygiene.
Geoff: Yeah, I think when we look at the historical context, I think it's always interesting to just figure out the historical drivers on a lot of these things. From a local sense, it sort of makes sense to optimize and clean, clean, clean, but it seems like on the macro scale, the end outcomes are often, like today, very much worse and more expensive. And I think you see that across all of healthcare with all the debates of Obama, Trumpcare, whatnot, just a lot of people are looking at, hey, our existing notions aren't quite working anymore. So I think it's just a broader, almost a populist revolution with self-empowerment around how to ...
Jasmina: Questioning. Right? Yeah.
Geoff: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. I'm curious, so can you talk a little bit more about the specific bacteria that you guys have discovered and what was the evidence. I'm curious, if this was on our skin 75 years ago, how did it get rediscovered?
Jasmina: Yeah. The story is that, is really funny. The great, you sort of end up in unexpected places. So, David Whitlock, who was our scientific founder was on a date with a woman. This is a true story, I promise. Was on a date with a woman who was a horseback rider. And David is very smart and knows that he is very smart and prides himself on probably knowing the answer to any question you throw at him. So just to paint a picture on David, he's lovely, by the way. And so she asked him, "Why is it that my horses roll in the dirt?" And David immediately thought, "It's because of the insects." And she said, "No, no, no. The insects don't come out until June, July, but they do this like clockwork in the springtime. Why is that?" He found this question to be really interesting, and David has this really lovely life philosophy that it doesn't matter who the questions are coming from, that sometimes the best questions can come from the most unexpected places. So he takes any and all questions very seriously. It was this question that catalyzed a series of explorations for him. So, he realized shortly thereafter that it wasn't just horses that had this behavior of rolling in the dirt, that many mammals did. So if you look at dogs and cats and chickens, every mammal virtually has some sort of ritual habit of rolling in the dirt. And he found this to be very interesting. I know most of us wouldn't necessarily, but the thought that was going through his head was, "If they have evolved the need to do this over many thousands of years, it must be really important. Why is that?" So, he started looking for links between mammalian skin and soil, and one of the strongest links that found, or the link that he found, was this class of bacteria that feeds off of the ammonia in our sweat. And this is the bacteria that we work with, ammonia oxidizing bacteria. It's a soil-based bacteria. It is present everywhere in nature that you find ammonia being produced, so virtually anywhere that you have a nitrogen cycle taking place, ammonia is being produced as like a toxic byproduct, and then being recycled back into that whole process. It's the ammonia oxidizing bacteria that play a really key role in continuing that cycle. If you're to somehow magically have an ammonia oxidizing bacteria magnet and you're able to suck them out of a potted plant, for example, that plant would soon die because there would be a lot of toxic buildup of the ammonia in soil. So this bacteria is found everywhere ammonia is found on the planet. It doesn't matter what ecosystem it is. It could be a glacier, it could be a hot spring, so it's ubiquitous. The only example of where this bacteria is not present where ammonia is is modern human skin. So this is data point number one that we point to, that it is the only place on the planet where ammonia is being produced without this class of bacteria being present. And if you back up a little bit and think about the things that we had just talked about a moment ago, if you think about how we as human beings once lived, it would make logical sense that it was once there, too. So that's data point number one, what catalyzed David's series of discoveries. Data point number two has been validated by other research groups since then who have, with curiosity, gone to Aboriginal tribes, swabbed and sequenced a variety of their microbiomes, and they have indeed confirmed that they are colonized with ammonia oxidizing bacteria. And perhaps not surprisingly, similar parallels exist in the gut, but they don't deal with many of the gut issues that many of us modern humans deal with, and they also don't deal with the skin or inflammatory disorders that many people in the developed world deal with. So that is sort of the core bacteria that we look at and how we were led to it.
Geoff: That's cool. So what are some of the performance measure? So putting the product to the test, so ... Obviously, you mention in the original clinical trial studies around some objective markers, or some objective markers, what are the most efficacious markers that you guys are most interested in?
Jasmina: Yeah. So the first step that we did as a company is to try and understand the mechanism of this bacteria as much as possible. And to set it as a backdrop to what is now happening in the microbiome space, or how our approach is different, it is worth pointing out, because I think most companies in the microbiome space are focusing on a big data play. So it's the first question that people have thought of with the microbiome is, "What is the perfect microbiome? What is a healthy microbiome? And how can we replicate it?" So that has started this very difficult search into data. It's like, how can we gather as much data as possible so that we can figure out what normal looks like and then start -
Geoff: -biome, right? Like, I think essentially, that's ... They're becoming ... Essentially, very accessible microbiome tests ...
Jasmina: Data tests.
Geoff: But it's like a data play.
Jasmina: Right. So that has been the approach of most companies in that space. We are not necessarily interested in that big data picture. What we're starting with is like the opposite end. So you have big data here at the top, and we are at like the small, specific point where we are just looking at one type of bacteria, we understand what it consumes, we understand what it produces, and then we look at all of the disorders and the issues that are out there and we say, "Okay, based on what we know this does, which of these systems can we apply it to so that we can measure some sort of a perturbation in that system." So that has largely been how we have approached our clinical path. So a few examples to take you through. We knew that bacteria consume ammonia and they produce nitrate and nitric oxide. And nitrate in the medical community is labeled as an anti-bacterial, ironically, and nitric oxide is labeled as an anti-inflammatory. So back in 2014, that was what we knew of the mechanism and we were like, "Where is anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory most useful?" Wounds! So forget the fact that we're applying a live bacteria to a wound, where typical convention is that that is not what you would want to do, but our first studies started off being in wound healing. With the New York Times article that came out, we launched a small beta, and we made the conscious decision to be very open and honest with our users that we knew some of the basics of what the product would do, we obviously knew that it was completely safe, so the equivalent of walking barefoot outside. But we wanted their input on what they were seeing and what they were noticing.
Geoff: What does that mean from regulatory perspectives? Like they generally regard it as safe? I know, because medics is generally different from food, I'm ... Like, I guess I mean, there's ... So in the consumable ... I'm just curious ...
Jasmina: No, it's a great question.
Geoff: From a regulatory perspective.
Jasmina: Super controversial. So the reason we were able to sell a live bacteria, we knew that it was safe and we were not making any drug claims on it. So that's the criteria. All the claims that we made on the product were oriented around a cosmetic, so improving the look and feel of the skin, and also odor claims, which are also considered to be cosmetic, and we knew that it was safe and we had a crap-ton of safety data to be able to substantiate that. In fact, this class of bacteria has already been GRAS-certified in Canada, so there's a lot of safety data out there that we could point to. And by the way, we ... In a field that's so young and for us being one of the few that's in it, we view ourselves as being the stewards of this as a field, and so we feel like it's our job to not only do right by the science, but to do right by the regulatory bodies. I know that a lot of people think that the regulatory bodies are really slow and maybe too strict, but they're there for a reason and we need to be able to respect that process and they are the ones that have dictated what that regulatory process needs to look like. And so, we've been very transparent with the FDA about what we want to do, and we always err on the side of caution because it's more about the dialogue than it is about revenue for us.
Geoff: Absolutely. I think that's how you are longterm successful. I think people that are trying to do short-term shortcuts ... Yeah, you might be able to get some revenue, flip X-million dollars, but if ... I think the longterm thing will be some sort of regulatory and regulator industry collaboration in how to define a lot of these enhancement products that just didn't exist in the previous paradigm of medicine, drug, and food. And we didn't really know. I think there's an emerging class of products that are super-safe, super-useful that doesn't necessarily need a doctor's prescription. Yeah, you might not want to say, hey, these aren't necessarily drugs and making medical claims, but there's like this interesting, I would say ...
Geoff: Gray area that I think a lot of technologies are seeming to prop up into.
Jasmina: Yeah. And you know what we worry about is someone theoretically could, out of aggressiveness, sort of set the field back. So if someone goes out there and says something that is way ahead of the science and it ends up being a big letdown, it's a letdown for those investors, it's a letdown for the public. So then, the next company that comes up behind them is going to have to raise money and their potential future investors are going to say, "Well, look at what happened with that company! We don't know, I'm really skeptical about that." And then the public is going to say, "Well, they were all just lying."
Geoff: Poison the well, right? Like you have to overcome the first person fuck-ups, basically.
Jasmina: Right, right. So we're pretty mindful of that. So the regulatory side of it, we view as incredibly important to our longterm success. Our time horizon, as you've been mentioning, has been really long, and we are okay with it. It took us a really long time to get to this point with our views on hygiene. It's very understandable that it will take a long time for us to start to reverse some of those original perceptions.
Geoff: So in terms with the results of the wound healing, with people seeing ... In terms of wound healing, scar appearance ... What were some of the interesting measures that came out of that initial study?
Jasmina: Sure. So we were doing safety studies on wound healing. We never officially started FDA studies on wound healing, and the reason we didn't is because of what started to happen on the consumer side. So we started the small beta, had a lot of interest, we had a back-order for about four months, committed to data gathering. That was really all we cared about. We wanted to know how people were using the product and what they were noticing. What we did with that data is we started to notice that strong signals were emerging over similar things. So we started to see, as an example that I can talk about, that acne was a strong signal that was starting to emerge, as in positive results on acne. Of course, this is not something that we market Mother Dirt for, this is what is there for the clinical side. So Mother Dirt is able to take this data across thousands and thousands of data points and say, "Hey, we're starting to see a really strong signal here, why don't you guys look into it?" They're able to look into this, they're able to reach out to those users, have conversations, and then structure a more thorough study that is double-blinded, placebo-controlled to really explore this. And then based on those results, then we will either file an IND or choose not to pursue it, so an Investigational New Drug with the FDA. And this is what we have chosen to do with acne. So we are currently in phase two trials with the FDA on a treatment for acne. It is not the same formulation as the Mother Dirt mist that we're selling now, but it's still based around this key bacteria as the core technology behind the mechanism of why we think it works.
Geoff: Yeah, I think the subtlety there is that if you come as a GRAS-certified, classified product, you can sell as a consumer product and then if there's medical, therapeutic indications, you can turn that into an IND or a new drug. But you can't start drug ... If it starts off as a drug, it can never be a consumer product, which I think is an interesting subtlety from a entrepreneur's hat. Jasmina: Yeah. It's difficult. It's difficult, I think, having a dual business model either way. I think in our case, people look at us and they think, "Oh wow, that really makes sense." But even for us, it's been challenging because it's two completely different businesses. How you fund each of them is really different ...
Geoff: Super different, yeah. Like, as you know, clinical trials for a drug is like a ten-year, billion-dollar, capex expense. I mean ... How do you think about that? It's basically if ... Like how does one think about that? How do you think about that?
Jasmina: Well, we have done all of our raises as a biotech. So we have always positioned ourselves as a pharmaceutical company, a pharmaceutical startup to our investors, which is why some people look at Mother Dirt and they're like, "Oh, are you raising money and what's your next round going to be?" And it's kind of like, we just raised 32 million dollars! Not because Mother Dirt is that big, but because we are a clinical research company and we are in the process of conducting multiple phase two studies and we're getting prepared to do phase three, and that is just how you have to fund ... That is just how you have to fund a biotech company. In our earlier days, in 2014 where we had only to then done a series A, so this is our series C, we were trying to talk about two of the sides very distinctly. And by and large, we realized that we needed our message to be really centralized and that, really, what we were doing is we were a biotech company that was focused on ammonia oxidizing bacteria, and we had this consumer-facing brand, but it was really all focused around the biotech side of what we were doing and we ... Not to say that, I'm sure that, I mean, Mother Dirt has certainly helped in that effort because many of our investors came from finding out about the product or using it and saying, "Oh, this is awesome!" But we just consciously made the decision that, hey, let's not complicate things. We have this awesome consumer product thing going on the side, but we're not going to ask people to put a value on it. We're just going to raise money based on our clinical results and our clinical pathway, and we're just going to keep it really simple. And if there's an upside from the consumer side, then so be it, but really, we positioned ourselves very much so as a pharmaceutical company versus a consumer product company, or even a high-
Geoff: Interesting. Interesting. So then how do you ... So what is the justification, then? It's like more of an education, market-building, sort of a ... It itself could be a large consumer beauty grand, but so like, I'm curious how you think about that from a business side. Jasmina: The justification is actually very simple. Before Mother Dirt, we were doing wound healing, where the market size is really small and the approval rate by the FDA is almost impossible. Now, we have a clinical pathway that includes ten, twelve shots on goal, which is like a dream for a pharmaceutical company, and we never would have gotten there had we not had the opportunity to have thousands of people try our product.
Geoff: I see. So it's basically like you have preclinical, a lot of traction with consumer users. It's like, okay, if there's clearly a demand and clearly is working on a preclinical basis, let's pharmaceuticalize it.
Jasmina: Let's look into ... Yeah.
Geoff: Okay. Interesting. Yeah, because I know that, it sounds like you have a very interesting blend of being an engineer by training, but I also notice that you've also been a venture partner at an investment fund. Obviously been on the business side for quite some time. I'm curious how you juxtapose those two hats. How do you see yourself as an entrepreneur, juggling these two pretty disparate fields?
Jasmina: Yeah. I think the reason the venture partner thing came up is because I'm always interested in entrepreneurism and figuring out how to help. I also am ... I think there's ... Unfortunately, I don't think it's spoken about enough how a lot of entrepreneurs feel like they are just figuring it out as it goes, and this is like a very normal feeling, and of course with time, there are things that you are more familiar with, but treating every organization that you run or business unit that you run as a templated, carbon copy of one another is just not reality. This is not my first time trying to commercialize an idea or a concept, and each one has been so distinctly different. Sometimes it's the people, sometimes the nature of the manufacturing behind it. Sometimes it's the channel. So I've always found myself to be doing the best that you can, voraciously consuming information and choosing what works for you and your business and probably what doesn't and just learning as quickly as I can. And I found that it's really helpful to talk to other entrepreneurs about their habits and routines. Everything from something as seemingly benign as how do you run a team meeting and an all-hands thing? This is like several weeks ago, where you feel like it's something that you need to do, but I went through a period where I felt like it was going through the motions, and it didn't necessarily feel like a great use of time, and so I called up several of my friends who are running companies, and I asked them, "Hey, how do you run your one-on-ones? What are some awesome books that you read? How do you share learnings around stuff with your teams?" And I got some really helpful and insightful advice. So the whole venture partner thing really came from being really curious about other entrepreneurs and endlessly inspired by entrepreneurism, their creativity, and how they view the world, and how they want to change things and make them better. I will totally admit, though, that being on the investment side is so painful, and that's totally the entrepreneur in me, where it almost feels like there's this ...
Geoff: Your job is to say 'no' most of the time, right? You talk to every VC, you're saying 'no' probably what, like 99 percent of the time? I mean, just bluntly speaking.
Jasmina: Yeah, but the value equation also seems really brutal. It feels like there's a very specific way in which you view value creation. And I understand why it has to be that way in venture capital, so we're specifically talking about next-gen mentor partners, and they have this really ... The reason I joined is because they have this sort of selective, distributive venture partner network that allows entrepreneurs and former operators, which I think is really important to invest in their deals, and they also have their own fund, but they invest in deals so they can read rounds and so on and so forth. So the reason they really have focused for a long time on having operators, former entrepreneurs, recent entrepreneurs, current entrepreneurs as their venture partners is because they've been in it. They've been in it really recently. So they totally know what's going on and they can do pretty rapid assessments on not only their business and the market, but also be truly helpful. Like whether it's a really annoying issue that you're dealing with your performance center on, or whether it's something else that's supply chain oriented or so on and so forth.
Geoff: The brass tax.
Jasmina: Right, right, right.
Geoff: No one sees, like ... You're moving physical atoms around and you're moving trucks of stuff around the country, it's like, where is the box? Like there's stupid stuff like that, but that's like half of the battle.
Jasmina: I know. Yeah. So you would totally appreciate this, but physical goods versus virtual goods ... I'm sure that it's always like the grass is always greener type thing, but I've always been on the physical goods side, and so for people who run like internet startups, I know that it's not easy, but for some reason, I cannot help but think that it is so much easier than physical goods and physical products because you have to deal with shipping things to thousands of people on an ongoing basis.
Geoff: Yeah, absolutely.
Jasmina: And weather happens, and like ... So yeah.
Geoff: I think the plus-side for folks with physical products is that people are used to paying for atoms, where a lot of interesting technology, software companies, people just don't want to pay for an app, even though they drop 5 dollars for a coffee, which is ...
Jasmina: Isn't that interesting?
Geoff: That's like the balance, yeah.
Jasmina: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so being on the investments side is ... Geoff: I'm also interested in-
Jasmina: Very different. It's very insightful. But it is a different sort of hat that you need to put on, and I was saying that the value equation is really brutal, but when you start to understand the business model behind funds, you understand why they need to be that way. So it's been a good, it's been a really insightful learning experience for me.
Geoff: All right, I think that's helpful context. I think a lot of starting entrepreneurs almost look at investors as this like oracle of knowledge, and they don't realize that most VC funds have a business model themselves. They are a business, they have their own LPs, their own investors, and there's certain time horizons in which they need to return capital. So, as you were saying, I think having an ex-operator or a current operator in helping translate I think is very helpful. Because I think a lot of new entrepreneurs are coming in, they want to build an awesome product, have good ideas there, but don't necessarily understand how some of the economics and financial insuring goes on behind the scenes.
Jasmina: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Definitely.
Geoff: I'm curious from a ... I'm a computer scientist by training. It's interesting for, entering more and more into the IP side on biotech, it's just interesting where most tech companies in-house all their R&D, right? Like most of it's proprietary, industrial ... Like Google, Inc. or Facebook are publishing papers in top-tier computer science journals. Or it seems like very much in the case of biotech, it's always some sort of academic group or university research group and commercial partners come, acquire the IP, license the IP ... I'm curious what your sense is there, and in helping translate ... Because I know a lot of our audience are Silicon Valley-focused necessarily, but I think it's like more and more, I think Silicon Valley or computer science operators are looking, "Hey, how do I ..." We see biotech, biohacking as this broad, green field, how does one perhaps, as someone that's operating on the field on the biotech side, how do you think about the IP side of things?
Jasmina: Yeah, you know, it's really interesting. We, especially early on in our days, we got asked the question by skeptics and fairly so, "Hey, where are your published papers? I want to read your published papers?" Guess what, we don't have any because if we did, we wouldn't be able to patent whatever it is that we're doing. So the development of our IP portfolio has been an important part of the value creation in this company and a huge reason we were not able to publish a lot of papers until certain IP was issued. Now that we have had a ... Now that we've built up our patent portfolios that we feel like it is impenetrable, not able to be penetrated, I should say, then ... Now we are looking at how we can publish papers. We also have been looking at partnerships with academic institutions to really start getting our research out there. But in the beginning, it was ...
Geoff: If you could share, a lot of the IP around the types of bacteria or ...? If you could share some sense of ... Yeah, curious.
Jasmina: Yeah, so our core patent, which is ammonia oxidizing bacteria for the use on skin and ammonia oxidizing bacteria to be used in clothing or patches, that was the, when we started the original lion's share of our patent portfolio. And what we've tried to do is now build up our portfolio around that based on the uses or applications. So looking at the clinical pathways that we're pursuing and making sure that we are locked tight from a patent perspective from each of those. We have also invested in IP for our manufacturing, so ...
Geoff: That sounds about right ... I mean, yeah, look at the space. It's either like the molecule or I guess the bacteria, and then manufacturing of said compound or bacteria, and then use cases of. I mean, I think those are probably the three broad areas, right?
Jasmina: Yeah, so I mean, we have had people that have jokingly said, "Oh, I'll get a bioreactor and I'll grow it myself." And it's like, go for it. Just give it a go because it took us a lot of money and a lot of time, not only to figure out the scale up that you need to do ... And this is where it's like classical chemical engineering, which wasn't even the most difficult part, but it was actually figuring out the filling process for getting it into this bottle.
And all of the stability and the QC that happens throughout the whole process because we say that it's a monoseptic filling process. This like oxymoron of you want it to be with bacteria in it, but just this one specific bacteria and no other bacteria. Because we, if you get another microorganism in there, you don't know what the interactions are going to be. Are they going to eat? Are bacteria going to eat them? Is it ...? You just don't know. So we want to make sure that there's nothing else in it, that it's just our ammonia oxidizing bacteria. And then you need to confirm concentration. You need to confirm viabilities. So before these things go out, we need to make sure that the bacteria inside is actually alive.
Geoff: Still alive, right. That's the thing about the critique around probiotic supplements, that most of them are dead before you eat them, so you're just eating ... I don't know what you're eating. Right? That's good that you guys actually verified there's live culture.
Jasmina: Yeah, and all of that takes time to figure out. And then you have the stability studies that you need to be running simultaneously. But our IP has looked at every aspect of our business, the ones that people that interact with and also the ones that you might not think about. So being able to have a patent on the manufacturing process for something like this or the filling process for something like this is, has been important to us.
Geoff: Yeah, I think you're hitting a lot of the dark magic behind productizing something like this, where I think a lot of people are just like, "Oh, this is just a bottle of goo, how hard is it to make?"
Jasmina: How hard can this be? Yeah!
Geoff: And people realize, like, no, there's a lot of steps and if you want the actual actives actually effective, a lot of QC. And I think ... Yeah, no, I think, that's also, the same critique with Google Search Engine. Like, oh, you just type in a box, how hard could that be? It's like, well, there's a billion supercomputers behind the scenes crunching your query, right? I think it's like that respect is more, because it's more digital, it gets more respected, but I think yeah, filling a bottle of something is ... There's a lot of dark arts behind it, as well.
Jasmina: Yeah. Yeah. No, there's a funny one that we have been dealing with until very recently. We ... Probably not surprisingly, actually, you would probably know, but the interest for something like this is quite large outside of the United States, so international expansion has been really important to us, specifically the EU. We've had a ton of interest from the EU.
Geoff: Interesting. I would imagine that you would have said like Korean or Asian markets, I'm sure ... I mean, there's a huge skincare ...
Jasmina: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe one day. The EU is where we're focusing for now. We've had a ton of interest coming in from that. So we started the registration process with the EU last year. And it's really interesting, the EU has a regulation, unlike the United States, the United States doesn't have a regulation that's quite like this. But they have a definition for a contaminated product. They very clearly define it and it's a certain number of bacteria per CFU, per milliliter, so certain CFU per mL. So basically, if you have more than 200 colony-forming units of any type of bacteria in a single mL, your product is deemed contaminated. They don't care about what bacteria it is. Your product is contaminated and you cannot sell it. Well, this was written at a time when it was never believed that bacteria would actually be the active ingredient. So having to work together with our regulatory lawyers both here and in the UK and also our scientific consultancy in the UK to really make sure that we are registering properly, that we are in touch with the agencies there to make sure that they understand and they approve of our product has been a really interesting process. So to make sure that we are locked tight for this. So it is ... And it takes a long time to be able to do that. So it is, like you say, a dark art. It's very not-sexy, but it's not just, oh, shipping a product to Europe. No, you have to follow their regulatory requirements and you have to respect the rules that they have and you have to work with your ...
Geoff: Yeah, redefining it. Like you want over 200 CFU per mL, otherwise it's like you're not selling anything.
Geoff: So it's like ... That's interesting. So, that's pretty interesting. I guess that's one of the main exciting things from a business side. I'm curious, as you wrap up here, what are some of the interesting avenues on the science side that you're excited about? What else with skin biome or just broader biohacking, broader microbiome? What is some interesting research there? And then, also, in terms of entrepreneurs that are inspired by your story, what would be the best ways to reach out and get connected there? And we'll wrap up on those two notes. Jasmina: Okay, great. Yeah, well the first one, and we've talked about this publicly, so it is okay for us to share. In one of the preliminary studies that we did for acne, it was an early stage safety study, and as a standard part of safety, you are measuring the vitals of all of those patients in the study. And this is our participants spraying different formulations of the mist on just their face for acne. So it was a safety study to make sure that they had no adverse response. Well, there was this really interesting thing that we observed in the results that came back. Of course it was safe, but they all experienced a statistically significant dose-dependent drop in blood pressure. So from the mechanism of the bacteria produces nitric oxide, which is a known vasodilator. So the mechanism makes sense and it's covered by our patent, so we did theoretically think that one day we could pursue something like this. What we did not expect was that the response would be, that the signal would be as strong as it was for just a fairly small surface area with a small patient size. So this opened up a whole new door for us and it took us out of just being derm, and into being a sort of systemic drug company.
Geoff: That's interesting.
Jasmina: So really, really fascinating when you start to think about the microbiome. It really starts to get at that idea of bugs is drugs, of really, the human body is truly not as siloed as we believe it to be. You just sprayed a live bacteria on your skin, and you potentially saw a reduction in your blood pressure? That's crazy, especially when you compare it to the existing solutions for blood pressure and all the side effects that go along with it. So we're very excited about that. We're currently in phase two trials with the FDA for a hypertension drug, so they accelerated us straight to phase two, which was also really great. But that was a big, that was a really big deal for us and certainly an area that we're really excited about.
Geoff: To translate that, phase one is usually safety, so I presume that it's already safe. So, it's like, okay, you can skip phase one.
Jasmina: Right. So phase one is safety, phase two is dosage, typically, and then phase three is full-on validation. You take the dosage from phase two and then you apply it to a larger population size, or a larger patient size, I should say. So that's one area where we're really excited on the research side. On the consumer research side, there's a lot of work that we're doing in the world of biome-friendly. So figuring out how we can restore certain types of bacteria to the skin is one part of the problem. The other part of it is figuring out how we can create products that we use that are still friendly to this ecosystem. So we talked for a long time about natural products and healthier products and nontoxic products and things like that, but no one has really talked about the effects on the ecosystem of the skin. No one has really talked about the effect on the microbiome. And what we hope to do is to introduce the microbiome as another criteria in product development and formulation. And so we have a lot of work that we're doing on that side to screen for biome-friendly ingredients and ultimately to develop additional formulas and hopefully start to not only expand our product offering, but hopefully share our learning so that it can be more applied by others. So that would be my answer to the first question.
Geoff: Those are exciting developments.
Jasmina: Yeah, yeah. And then, on the second one, it really depends on what your listeners are interested in. They're more than welcome to go to AOBiome.com, so that's our company's name. There you'll find most of the information on our clinical pathway and our research and some articles that have been written about us. You're also more than welcome to Google AOBiome or Mother Dirt. You'll see a bunch of stuff that has come out, some of it hilarious, some of it just really interesting how people have been talking about their experience with the product. So it really depends. AO Biome or Mother Dirt. All of our contact information and social media handles are available on the site.
Geoff: And we'll point to those, as well.
Geoff: No, thanks so much for taking the time to share this story around the forgotten or the missing organ, or the organ to be further understood. And I think that's a super active area of research, and I think you gave us some tidbits that you wanted to do further research on. So I appreciate the time and I'm sure we'll keep tabs and see how these studies and results pan out. I think it's an exciting area for obviously the company, but also just all of humans, I think, for all figuring out how to best optimize and improve our lives on a daily basis.
Jasmina: Absolutely. Thanks so much for the time, I really appreciate it. I was really excited when you reached out. And thank you for facilitating interesting conversations like this! I mean, this is what, what we do is all about, right? It's all about having these conversations. So thank you for making it scalable.
Geoff: Cool. Hey, cheers!
Jasmina: All right, I'll talk to you soon.
Geoff: All right take care. Bye!
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