Gut health is the key to healing a lot of diseases, says Suneer Jain, founder of Sun Genomics, a San Diego-based health startup that makes customized probiotics for customers.
Jain, a microbiologist by training who had worked at a number of testing companies such as LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics, and Illumina, discovered that his newly born son in 2016 had GI issues. The doctors were not able to prescribe him medicines, because he was too young. Instead of accepting the diagnosis as a condition his son would have to manage, Jain set out to see what could be done to improve his son’s health. He started with testing his poop. It was there he found unhealthy strains of bacteria in large numbers.
“We could see that these strains can lead to inflammation in the body. I tested my stool too for a comparison to see what a healthier adult gut looks like. And then I went down the rabbit hole of researching different strains and their impact,” he says.
After spending $30,000 in tests, many of which he put on his personal credit card (and worked as an Uber driver to supplement his income), and researching the ins-and-outs of healthy bacteria strains, Jain formulated a customized probiotic for his son. Soon after, he started to see some improvement.
Inspired by this success story, Jain got the idea of building a company that could do something similar for others. After testing a lot of the probiotics on the market, he found that many of them didn’t even have the probiotic strains in them, as stated on the label, and others just didn’t make it to the gut to help. Yet, the gut microbiome, he knew, was critical to overall health.
“We’ve seen that there is an absolute connection between our gut microbiome and other microbiomes in our body, such as in the mouth, skin, lungs, and the connection between gut and the brain, with bacteria simulating neurotransmitters in some way.”
Using data compiled by the Human Microbiome Project and the American Gut Project, Sun Genomics has integrated that information with its existing technology, resulting in a database with more than 100,000 genomes. They can track fungi, parasites, and viruses in addition to bacteria.
In 2016 when Jain started exploring this space, there were few products, if any, that offered such a customized approach. After self-funding the initial year of research and development, Jain took his concept to investors. He started local with the San Diego venture capital community, and then went to San Francisco to take part in IndieBio, an accelerator focused on biology-related tech and business. Not only was he able to convince investors, but the managing general partner of IndieBio Sean O’Sullivan had a child with autism and was also looking at customized solutions that could help. The personal connect, Jain says, really helped him understand what they were trying to solve. He connected Jain and his colleagues to researchers at Arizona State University who were looking at how gut health could impact autism. Subsequently, Sun Genomics began a study in 2020 with Arizona State University putting patients on a customized formula for three months to see if there was improvement across the board improvement.
Jain has now raised capital and built out a company that has a unique offering in the probiotics industry: he calls them “precision probiotics.” Each customer is sent a stool kit, from which the company maps out his/her gut, and the genomic testing results are available to view on an app. Rather than guessing which probiotics could help, he says they’re able to pick strains they know will be more effective, based on research. Plus, they offer guidance, through their in-house scientist Shirin Treadwell who is happy to talk to customers one-on-one about their health.
Along with research on autism, Sun Genomics is supporting programs in San Diego designed to better understand Crohn’s disease and colitis. “We have a science-first approach. We really want to help people improve their health, and if we can do that by supporting the research, we’ll do that.”
Similarly, during the pandemic, Jain says his team looked at how COVID affects gut health; there’s a notable connection, he says, which is why we’re seeing COVID show up in waste water and stool samples. “The virus does reach the intestines and for some patients that results in gut-related symptoms.”
Overall, Jain notes that since he started the company, the interest in the human gut microbiome has increased exponentially. “I’ve never seen a field of study blow up like this. Every specialist is doing a microbiome analysis, and it’s every field of study. There are now about 60,000 papers printed on the topic.”
Yet the research component of the company is pricey. Jain is trying to offer the service at an affordable price, but he acknowledges that it’s not possible to do rock-bottom rates because testing is costly. Plus, he divulges a few trade secrets: some probiotics have a lot of the cheaper strains in larger quantities because it’s cost-effective for the business, but that’s not necessarily better for the gut, he says.
Sun Genomics’ probiotics range in potency, based on a person’s specific needs. Some are as low as 1 to 2 billion CFU, especially for children, to all the way at 150 billion CFUs for adults needing a gut overhaul. They use a combination of soil-based and non soil-based bacterial strains, which the company encourages customers to refrigerate on arrival, but they’ll also weather room temps for 30 days.
While some functional medicine doctors in California have started recommending SunGenomics to their patients to determine the root cause of their dysbiosis, Jain is hopeful that this customized approach will become more mainstream, gaining the attention of gastroenterologists who often see patients with IBS, IBD, reflux, and other common ailments, many of which could be improved by a better examination of the gut.
Getting a window into one’s health has been a bit of trial-and-error thus far to see what’s missing or what’s in excess. Yet, Sun Genomics is part of a growing community of health startups with a more tailored approach, which could open the door for further research on not just gut-related illnesses, but a variety of diseases that are connected to chronic inflammation and dysbiosis.