This is a auto-transcribed version of the interview. You can watch all the protalks series here
Gaurav Tripathi 0:06
Great, okay, so we are live. Great. Good evening, everybody. Welcome to another edition of Protoss by SuperPro. I’m your host Goro to party co founder and CEO of super pro.ai. And as you know, we keep bringing amazing professionals are amazing super pros to you in every edition of pro talks with a very simple intent that you get to learn from their journey, and you get to learn from their successes and their failures. Yeah. So, we are, our effort ninjas that yes, we try to bring in professionals who are from different fields, and people who have done something different and maybe who have done a lot of things. So they are going different hat in the same line. Today, the superhero that we have got, as pretty unique in that trust, respect because he what he’s building, sitting in India team here. It’s something which is one of its kind. Yeah, and it’s, it’s the first of its kind to be set up in India. Yeah, so I’m sure you’re gonna get to learn a lot, so all of you who are watching it live right now. Yeah, you can ask a questions you can put in the questions in the chat box, and those who are, who are watching the recorded versions later on. You can put in the question the comments, our team will keep looking at it and we’ll gentle the questions to our guests. Yeah, so don’t worry. And. Okay, with that, I’ll start to our today’s guest. Kumar. Kumar Shanklin, come on over to you, please.
Kumar Sankaran 2:06
Thank you. Hello to everyone. It’s wonderful to be on this platform. So I’m QuestionCan the CEO of Lucent rich bio. And what I’m building is, is something called as the microbiome. You know that’s a technology that we’re using. So, basically the microbiome is, is all the microorganisms that are living inside you and living on you and graph can you believe that we have more microbial cells inside us than human cells. So we have our micro organisms then then human. Okay, so that that’s the science that we will encounter. Okay.
Gaurav Tripathi 2:50
Okay. Um, so now that you have given, given the brief of it. I will start more. I’ll start with. So, how did this microbiology thing happen. Yeah, so your education. Where did you, where do you start. What did you study, how did you get into microbiology.
Kumar Sankaran 3:16
So I did my bachelor’s in microbiology, but then my master’s was more into biotechnology and, you know other life sciences.
Gaurav Tripathi 3:24
Honest, honest admission, I didn’t even know that there is a bachelor’s in microbiology and that to know that long back. Yeah,
Kumar Sankaran 3:31
no it’s a it’s an age old guy, it’s an angel field I mean studying bacteria especially for infectious diseases and all that is probably a joke, but then most of my work experience I was, I was a systems biologist. So back in,
Gaurav Tripathi 3:49
before you’ve done that, so yes, I see that you did the bachelors you did masters, and then you added the PDF to my as well as you have been moving and all this while you were focused on that will excel so while you are studying. Had you already made your mind that yes, this is the field which you are going to stick to our how.
Kumar Sankaran 4:15
So, whenever studying I was pretty sure that I wanted to be in the biological sciences field. What inside political sciences, I didn’t, I didn’t know. And after my master’s I was supposed to do a PhD, you know, and you know go into academia that was what I wanted to do. But then once I get a paying job, it’s very very difficult to move away from us. So that’s why I was, I started just with a with a master’s.
Gaurav Tripathi 4:47
Okay. So, how was this field, back then, so we are we are talking about it just in case people you don’t realize we’re talking about very early 2000s Yeah. Yes. And so, at that time when you’re studying and in this field, or how was the perception around the field and what were the kind of opportunities in India at that point in time.
Kumar Sankaran 5:13
So, so, back then, I mean, everybody I mean everybody was doing a Masters would would say, you know, do a PhD, either in India or outside India, or the other half would say, you know, with joining Biocon or Reliance kind of a reliance licenses kind of a company to now get into the manufacturing piece of it. So, that is, that is one so it’s it’s either academic r&d or into manufacturing and the above my As luck would have it, I got into. I got into r&d from a, from a company point of view as as my first job and you know so you know it was, it was I was lucky in that way, but I know most of my classmates. When went on to do PhDs or right now they’re sitting in some clinical research organization doing some very exciting work back then. So, but when I mean now we do have a lot of clinical research organizations in India, but early 2000 I mean, there was absolutely very little companies that were doing it. So, one didn’t think of that as a, as a, as an inner place that you can go and work. So, I mean, things have changed a lot over the last decade or so.
Gaurav Tripathi 6:40
Did you Did you face any challenge in terms of like okay I’m not going on the PhD but looking after the job so given the limited opportunities that were. Did you have a challenge in finding the right opportunity or it was just that time you were there and you got the opportunity.
Kumar Sankaran 6:58
I added one more challenge to myself I said I’m not going to go out of India, no job and getting I’m going to get it in India. And, no, no, I mean, it was it was a little bit of struggle I mean I think post my graduation it, it took me close to six, eight months to get my first job, you know, in between I was masquerading as a customer call center executive that a little bit of stint in KFC, you know, worked in the kitchen over there for some time, so did all of that but with, like, you know right opportunity and, and, and then from from there onwards there was no looking back.
Gaurav Tripathi 7:42
Now, great, great get this Excel bed air to everybody who is listening. I said, is it does desire a great that’s a new wave, unless you have that determination and you are laser focused that yes, this is what you want. And to make that happen, is whatever else you have to do just, just keep doing it till you till you get there. Yeah, you could have easily, easily chosen the easier path I said, Yes, I’m in a much better, a better paying path and how was the sense of, I see that yes, you work as a scientist, New Scientist and you working there. So how was our that period, early, early career, what kind of work, were you doing, and did it, did it. Okay I lost that later. First year what kind of work will you you’re doing.
Kumar Sankaran 8:44
So the work that I got introduced to in my first job is something called a systems biology, which basically means you’re sitting in front of a computer and analyzing biological data. So, to be honest for all the biological science thing that I talk about, I haven’t entered a lab post my graduation. I’ve been sitting in front of a computer, understanding biology and interpreting biology, but I don’t know how to hold up a pet anymore, or to look into a microscope anymore. You know, the last time I ever touched that was in 2003. So this was, again, a very unique job I think it was one of the first few companies, a first job was in connection with life sciences, and mind blowing experience. Imagine a fresher getting exposed to really cutting edge r&d where I think we were the only people who never had Monday morning blues would work voluntarily for seven days a week. You know, from morning till night. Just because we were doing something that was so exciting and that we love. So that was. So analyzing data, analyzing biological data was, was my first job,
Gaurav Tripathi 10:10
But But why was it exciting for you.
Kumar Sankaran 10:15
I mean you feel. I mean it’s it’s like reading Wikipedia and, and getting to understand something new. I mean, if I have to put it in a very simple language, so So it’s what you know you know there was a point of time I was probably reading a lot. We’re 10 research articles every day. And so this was cumulatively,
Gaurav Tripathi 10:36
I repeated 10 research articles every day. Well,
Kumar Sankaran 10:43
towards towards into my second or third years since I used to do close to about 100 abstracts, a day, and I’d gotten gotten to a level where I can you know I just came through an abstract to get the key points out, but now it’s like looking into your body and understanding what your body does and, you know, now in a molecular level. And, you know, everyday was fascinating. So I remember the first month that I joined. You know I was we were working on diabetes, and everything was so bad right now when I think of it, I mean I feel so foolish. You know, insulin is the hero glucagon is the villain in a very black and white in one hormone. The other hormone is, is, is, you know, not that great for you. And from there on to understand. And, you know to come to a point where you ever wondered how do you survive, how human beings actually living, you know, with so much of complexity. There’s so much of learning that is, that is there. And so, which is, which is what, you know, that was so exciting. And it also give credit to organizations which allow you to learn, and not give you just mundane tasks that you keep repeating over and over again but, you know, allows you to explore, learn, learn from your own mistakes as well.
Gaurav Tripathi 12:17
Great. So, I use both that. Yes, you. You then go for the PhD and chose the easier path of yours going after a job and then you start getting salary, then don’t think about the PhD, but then you took, even a even a more radical step. You were there in a job. You’re doing good. And then you chose to do a startup. So when did that happen when did that trigger or where did that sitter, you know, came in right that yes, you have to, you have to do a startup.
Kumar Sankaran 12:56
Um, I think it happened very organically. It wasn’t like I got up one day and I said I want to do a startup, it was, you know, with my peer groups. We would talk a lot about. I know the kinds of opportunities and the kinds of stuff that you can that you can do. And, you know, when, when you look at India and when you look at the non existence of, of good r&d companies, you begin to wonder, you know, one there is an opportunity and two, there is, there is something that, that you said before that you can. And, you know after point of time systems biologist, you know, we couldn’t find jobs in India, other than one or two companies that were doing and we will, we would get excellent offers from outside India from Europe, from the US, but nothing in India, that’s when you can do some currency. You know, that is a very, you know, working on demand company you have I have been a single man consultant for some time. You know, before starting my current company but now, you know, it was a, I want to do a startup was more organic, was more, you know, this is my let’s try and do this let’s try and do this not as a company, but let’s try and find solutions. And, you know from that it gradually grew into becoming a company I guess.
Gaurav Tripathi 14:32
So about the thoughts of omics solution, which is what was the journey there. So you either get started loan, and then they’re true so How was the journey like
Kumar Sankaran 14:46
MC solution. So, a colleague of mine, and I, after work every day. We used to walk back home, and this was a good 45 minutes to a one hour work. And this was the MC total. And it was still Bangalore was still a little green, you could still have less traffic on the road and walk
Gaurav Tripathi 15:11
wondered that yes, once upon a time, you could actually walk in Bangalore without, without getting stressed.
Kumar Sankaran 15:21
It was, it was in a wonderful. My colleague, his name was Ashwin, he was, he was more from the computational side. So, you know, we would bounce off ideas we would discuss a lot of things and from there, shall we know we’re going to have decided why not try this. And we came up with a, we came up with an idea we wanted to implement it. We tried limited it then. I don’t think either of us understood what business was, was, you know what it is to, you know, start a company we just new technology, that kind of fizzled out, you know, quite, quite. But that’s that’s the kind of thing that we started off, so it was more like a consultancy service that we that we built, but not something that that meant for what too much. Okay, and to the point I don’t think either of us regretted it too much, a lot of learnings
Gaurav Tripathi 16:30
for us a lot of learnings, can you share your learnings from that
Kumar Sankaran 16:33
journey. That, you know product alone is not is not the end of all, I mean it’s just the first step. There is, There is much, much more than one product, then just developing product. And it’s, it’s also very important to have the kind of team the right kind of mindset kind of environment at home I mean, not, not everybody can, you know, just choose to be a carrier and start a company, we need to have people at home, to operate. I think the one of the first thing you need to sell your idea and sell a company to is to your family members and to get them out. If they support you, then you can go to a long distance. Otherwise, you know, you can’t go. So, you know, that was, you know, those were the kind of learnings.
Gaurav Tripathi 17:35
So, this was, this was the. I’ll say the first iteration. It’s then you started using rich bio, right. So again, how did this, this transition happened or, or what led from Omex Alavi, you know what, what, what happened.
Kumar Sankaran 18:02
So often will mix. There was some time where I was an independent consultant, I mean, again, looking for jobs, trying to do what I need to do a next term. I also had some time fiddling my thumb’s just exploring. Exploring the world around me. Then I was running a blog called as loosened rich bio, you know, very very peculiar, very very peculiar name, but it was,
Gaurav Tripathi 18:36
But for the study on the name itself.
Kumar Sankaran 18:40
Back when I was working on working in connection, I discovered the miracle diabetes drug, and you know it, it had a product protein with have had a lot of Leucine rich, rich fluid and amino acid. And a lot of a lot of proteins have a lot of Leucine stacked together. So this repeat so from there I created a blog called as leucine rich bio. So when we actually, you know, thought about starting the company. We didn’t have money to buy another domain. So we started losing his bio. That’s the only reason that was the name but the good thing about this is it’s a it’s a good icebreaker. And it’s a very unique name that, that people even in the biological domain tend to remember.
Gaurav Tripathi 19:34
Yeah, so no. So you started the blog and but but then. Where did you exactly decide to start at, at, as a company, what was the trigger, there.
Kumar Sankaran 19:46
So my co founder product and I initially thought, you know, there was this exciting technology called as next generation sequencing, you know, which was coming out I mean, for those who have not heard of next generation sequencing, it is it is a way to sequence your genome, at a very high throughput and a very low cost. And, and nowadays. A person’s genome can be sequenced as as little as $5, a decade ago that was half a million to do. So, next generation sequencing was was just coming out and both Robert and I understood the technology really well, and we initially wanted to conduct workshops in college, and both of us suffered from the same thing that we were systems biologists, and we’ll just won’t get a job in India. So we said, Okay, let’s go. Let’s go and start a workshop. So we prepared for about three months for the workshop, and the first college that we went to had four students in it or five students that attended the workshop. And, you know, that’s when we realize okay workshops is, is, is not the way, not the way forward. So we went back to the drawing board, we. So this was I think late 2013, early 2014 We went back to the drawing board. We discussed about whether to do human genetics or microbiome for three or four months, and said no to microbiome initially started off on human genetics. And interestingly, Gara, we, we decided to start the company in May. Okay, but it took us one point month to you know get enough courage to, you know, put in money to, to actually incorporate a company and, and take in office space. So, you know that that didn’t come easily.
Gaurav Tripathi 22:02
So that’s where we’ll start from, from there, how, how did you really start like building building the business around that, and, And where did you see the, the opportunity so well, like now, where you have these but then where did you see the opportunity early on.
Kumar Sankaran 22:21
I think the opportunity that we saw was, you know biological data is is hard to understand. And if we can build a software platform that can that can help researchers, doctors, you know, any kind of scientists to easily understand biological data especially genomics data, I think, you know, we thought that was a good way to go ahead and that is well, that was the first platform that we met our SaaS platform where anybody could upload any clinician could upload the genomics data, and we’d make meaning out of it and you know we can get back to it and know the platform was actually pretty good I mean there was the databases that we created the algorithms that we created was actually very, very good. I think at that point of time we just didn’t know how to market it, and how to get it out to a much larger audience. But what we did was we started attracting people who wanted to understand, you know, their own genomics and their own microbiome. And, you know, that’s, that’s where the pivot kind of happened. You know, we’re probably not like a b2b SaaS company we are probably a B to C, you know, testing company that you know that that happened through a journey where as we would try and sell software platforms you know people would just come back and ask, you know, can you just do these testing for us and give us a report. And so that’s how the journey journey went.
So now I’ll come back to the microbiome part. So what, what exactly it is for the layman. For a layman to understand, right. Why should be. So first, What exactly is this microbiome thing. And what, how does it fit into the in, in our human body context. So, so the microbiome, or the more technical name is microbiota, is, is all the micro around us, micro organisms around us enough on us. Now, you name it till we all know about the virus now, especially after COVID. But there are so many viruses that are actually in us and know and on us all the time. There’s also a lot of bacteria, there’s also a lot of fungus. And it’s in our rooms, it’s an our hair and our mouth. It’s an inter Stein, you know all these all these cases. So back in 2010 2011, a lab in the US kind of discovered that the gut. You know, one of the largest organs that we have holds a lot of microorganisms, a lot of bacteria and fungus and virus, and, and I, and now it’s also going to prove that we probably have more microorganisms, or more bacteria in our body than human cells. And it actually controls everything that we do. So, currently, if you feel like having ice cream at about four o’clock in the evening. It’s most probably a bacteria signaling to your brain saying that feed me ice cream. Well, I want to eat ice cream now. So, hence go out and get in so it will send a signal to your brain to do that. So that’s how powerful the microbiome is then roughly just the host for all of you guys.
Yes, yes. Well, we were just horse, I mean we just this entire we are humans is just a pretense. It’s one set of microorganisms interacting with another set of microorganisms, through us. That’s, that’s all it is.
Gaurav Tripathi 26:49
Now, but from, from a, from end user perspective, yeah. So you spoke about testing about microbiome. So, why should I really care about it from, from a my day to day life perspective or health perspective, why should I really go for it and what exactly what exactly is done when I saw, When you for testing, what’s it about,
Kumar Sankaran 27:21
um, so the microbiome actually controls a lot of your biological activity, and hence controls a lot of disease progression and and diseases itself from anything from obesity to diabetes to cardiovascular disease to depression to constipation to ulcers, you name it, the microbiome has a contribution to it, and a significant contribution. So, the rule of thumb is that you need to have a good diversity of microorganisms in your gut. You should not let one or two species dominate the gut. Okay. The reason I’m talking about gut microbiome more than all other micro biomes is, you know, as we eat our food. You know all the microbes comes from that is directly going into the gut, and there’s a lot of activity and there’s a lot of growth of bacteria in the 90% of all the bacteria that we have in our body is actually that in our, in our gut. And, and it is it is this, that is, that is actually dictating all of our diseases, and all of that. So like I mentioned, the ice cream thing was a good analogy, like I mentioned that the all these bacteria sends out particular metabolites and fake news, and all of that, which will change the way your body functions, and thereby your mood, getting prone to more diseases. So by looking at the gut microbiome, by, you know, saying what we are at risk at this point of time, and by taking the right kind of nutrition, we can actually reverse these things.
Gaurav Tripathi 29:19
So when you say testing, What exactly do you test.
Kumar Sankaran 29:25
So we take fecal samples of stool samples from from patients. So, I am, fondly known in the community as the tooth entrepreneur. I, unquote an export. Most days I am, I’m on, I’m calling FedEx saying that, you know there’s there’s a lot of shit in the customs, can you please clear it and clear that for me. So we send a kid to a person’s house where one small amount of poop can be collected and from that is where we do all the profiling.
Gaurav Tripathi 30:09
So when you say profiling again you know what, what, what does it mean what is the kind of insights that you are able to generate from it.
Kumar Sankaran 30:20
So, so what, what we can do is identify all the microorganisms that are there. So, in any given individuals we find 2000 Different species or, you know, all around them around that number, and till date I think in the Indian gut so far we have identified 10,000 Different species altogether. Wow. So, and it’s this kind of diversity that is that is actually very, very good. So by looking at the relative abundance of all these species. How much of how much of population of all of these species are present, were able to predict whether this person is programmed to diabetes or towards a heart disease, or towards depression
Gaurav Tripathi 31:07
Kumar Sankaran 31:10
about 1415 diseases like this. Okay. And then we also do recommend just on the food. Probiotics prebiotics, you know, telling an individual what kind of food that he or she needs to take to rebalance that to get the right population of microorganisms in the gut, so that you can prevent yourself from getting any of, which is why we’re moving away we’re trying to move away from sick care. Why don’t we only take care of your body, after you fall sick to a more health care paradigm where you’re taking care of your body, even when you’re seemingly healthy,
Gaurav Tripathi 31:57
and you’re spoke about diversity. Now, how does it really look like in the real world. So like for example, if you’ve test somebody from north of India, or somebody from south of India or east or west or somebody from Europe versus somebody from India, you see that these are the profiles will be will be different again, How, how different, will it
Kumar Sankaran 32:25
provides a quite different set of over 60 70% accuracy. I can also determine whether a person is, is living in an urban setting, or a rural setting
Gaurav Tripathi 32:37
Kumar Sankaran 32:39
How much of it. I can even detect whether you’re exposed to passive smoking on Mr. M. Any other things like, you know diet matters geography matters, the kind of food that, that a person is taking where he’s living where she’s going to walk through all of these different things, they take with a microbiome and every individual’s gut microbiota is like that person’s fingerprint, it’s quite unique. But there is, there is certain signatures that that will allow you to say whether the person is healthy on or not healthy. So yes, there is differences between someone living in the north, versus someone living in the South. There is a difference between someone living in the South but having doll travel, so someone living without having to do something. So, all of that. All of that makes a difference.
Gaurav Tripathi 33:45
And is there. Is there a universal definition of, like, this is how the composition should be.
Kumar Sankaran 33:52
No, There is, there is nothing such as normal. I’m glad you asked this question. Almost every doctor asked me this question and I find it very, very difficult to make them understand that there is nothing such as normal. There is, there is some, we definitely know what is non ideal we definitely know what is, what a certain disease, kind of signature will look like. And, you know, you tend to move towards the word situation, but we don’t know what that ideal thing is, all the world’s knowledge put together, kind of, I think we probably understand only 10%. So there’s still a lot of way to go before we can understand all of this.
Gaurav Tripathi 34:42
Since we have been talking about microbiome and neuro bio but I think it’s a very natural question we have been hearing a lot about antibiotics, and we have in fact better than people. Now I get this. Come in. In regular conversations as well that oh, you should not have those many antibiotics but was there was a there was a long period wherein Yes, like people used to blindly prescribe antibiotics and in India, I believe, still there is a case wherein largely doctors are just prescribing antibiotics, versus when we look at outside India, there are now regulation. So, where do you see that what is the impact of antibiotics, to, to our microbiome.
Kumar Sankaran 35:36
Very very detrimental. So an antibiotic is almost like a nuclear bomb going off, going off in your gut, and it will, it’ll indiscriminately kill all the kinds of bacteria that both the good and the bad, and the bad ones. And what, then it will do is, you don’t know which one will will start, you know, going, and moving or some something might start dominating foresee antibiotic treatment. So, enhance the kind of use of antibiotics that we have here in India is is very bad association of antibiotics is, oh yeah, it’s probably the worst. You know, now I think doctors understand this better and to prescribe antibiotics only when it is absolutely needed. And plus there are antibiotics that are coming out which is targeting the, You know only a particular kind of species of of bacteria. So, you know that is more useful than, then the general antibiotic that was given all these years, and the other trend that you’re now seeing is, if you’ve noticed the new biotics actually come with us Sasha probiotics. So we yearling bacteria at the same time you’re replenishing it with, with probiotics so everyone’s learning and everyone’s innovating and, you know, the use of antibiotics is slowly being, being very focused into being many more than antibiotics. The other thing that that troubles me in all the last five years I’ve been trying to educate this to everybody around me, is the use of antibiotics, you know, for your hand and and and all of that. And Corona has come in destroyed all my education. So, so, although all the bacteria that there are the bacteria, fungus everything that’s there on your, on your skin. It’s almost like an ozone layer first layer of defense. And though you know when you’re using antiseptics to actually on your on your hand, you’re actually killing it. And this is why you know people tend to develop rashes and and other skin related diseases. Unfortunately, the pandemic has forced to use the antiseptic it’s probably the right thing to do right now. But, you know, we need to see ways of, of getting back the good bacteria back on our, on our hands.
Gaurav Tripathi 38:22
So I’ve been been intrigued a lot by these all of the ads which come in and in spite of regulations will give 99.9% guarantee it kills 99.9% of the jobs and whatnot. And that’s, That’s so funny. Anybody will come some, some scientific knowledge, understand that. Yeah, if it really does, it’s certainly going to cause a lot more harm than than any good.
Kumar Sankaran 38:56
It does. I mean, there is no such, I mean, at least to me, there is no such thing as, as good bacteria and bad bacteria, it’s all in the right proportions. Even good bacteria when it’s too much in excess is as problematic. So maintaining the right balance maintaining the right proportions, just like life. Yeah, I mean getting that, that balance is, is very important.
Gaurav Tripathi 39:22
I think that way. That way the rules for the size of the laws are pretty much the same and simple everywhere is striking a balance, micro level or macro level I think that that makes sense. So, in this in this journey towards getting insights on micro biome. So, again coming back to where you said that you realize that people would want to get themselves, tested and get their microbiome tested. So when was the actual trigger when When did you actually start rolling it out to two people.
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