Better health for babies’ bellies
95 percent of American infants can’t digest 15 percent of breast milk nutrients. Cornellians at Evolve Biosystems are working to change that.
For more than a decade, Bruce German, PhD ’83 (CALS/food science) and his colleagues at the Foods For Health Institute (FFHI) at the University of California, Davis, have studied the infant gut microbiome and its critical interaction with human breast milk. German, a professor of food chemistry at UC Davis, and a group of analytical chemists, microbiologists, and nutritionists discovered that 15 percent of the nutrients in milk are not digestible by humans — a surprising development, given the huge tax on a mother’s body to make milk.
These nutrients require digestion by a specific gut microbe that is now missing in the majority of infants born today due to the unintended consequences of C-section delivery and antibiotic use. Consequently, German’s team set out to develop a product that could be given to infants to restore the missing bacterium that modern medical practice had unintentionally removed from most American babies over the last 100 years.
Just your typical startup, right?
That’s how Evolve BioSystems was born — or spun out, in business lingo — from the FFHI research. German and his fellow scientists continue to advise the probiotics developer, which has brought two products to market, Evivo for humans and GlycoGuard for horses and pigs, under the direction of CEO Tim Brown ’84, MBA ’92, who joined Evolve in May 2016 as chief operating officer.
Most American babies are missing a crucial gut microbe
In a space often fraught with pseudoscience, Brown is taking Evolve’s data-driven message directly to thought leaders. He points to an upcoming meeting with the American Academy of Pediatrics “to show them that less than 5 percent of American babies have this bacterium which, 100 years ago, all of us had.
“In the developed world, we believe the loss of this bacteria is manifesting as an increase in autoimmune diseases,” Brown adds. “In the developing world, where the state of nutrition is not as good, the loss of this bacterium may be a primary risk-driver for stunting.”
Brown — who spent 17 years working at Procter & Gamble in its pharmaceutical and OTC medicines divisions — came to Evolve from Mead Johnson Nutrition, maker of Enfamil infant formulas. “I was recruited into the company to translate the idea and findings around an important gut bacterium to an actual product and to build a commercial organization,” says Brown, who succeeded David Kyle, chairman and chief scientific officer, as Evolve’s CEO in August 2017.
Funding a brand with an inspiring mission
Brown and his team created the Evivo brand in two forms — a powder designed to be mixed with breast milk that is marketed to consumers and an oil suspension for hospital use, sold in vials. Two years after launching Evivo, the company has sold well over 1.5 million servings to consumers and over 30,000 hospital feedings.
With the support of two of the world’s largest charitable organizations — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Horizons Ventures, the venture capital arm of the Li Ka Shing Foundation — Evolve has completed four rounds of fundraising totaling $70 million. “Working with organizations like Gates and Horizons is really gratifying because it feels like we’re doing something important,” Brown says. “It’s not easy to be in a startup because you haven’t yet broken through. But it’s worth it when you feel like you’re making a change in the world.”
Last April, fellow Procter & Gamble and Johnson alumnus Sandy Argabrite, MBA ’85, joined Evolve as its chief financial officer. Argabrite worked for P&G internationally for half of his career, including posts in Japan, China and Canada; more recently, he spent nearly two years as CFO of Quest Nutrition, makers of the popular Quest Bar.
A lean, fast-paced startup
Comparing the pace and scope of a startup to a corporate behemoth, Argabrite says, “There is more work to do here every day than we can possibly get done. But I absolutely love the combination of this fantastic mission that we’re on as well as the opportunity to do things that I’ve never done before.”
“At my last job with Mead Johnson, I was in charge of 10 countries from Pakistan across to the Philippines, an organization of more than 2,000 people (including contractors) and a nearly $1 billion business,” Brown says. “It’s quite a shift to go from that to an organization of about 45 people with growing revenue, but it’s exciting. We can get the key decision-makers in a room and make a decision in 15 minutes that typically would take weeks to make at a larger company.”
Gaining recognition and broadcasting the message
In another important step in bringing their message to the pediatrics community, Evolve’s paper on chronic enteric inflammation in newborns was selected by Nature’s Pediatric Research as the cover feature for the December issue. “We’re challenging the dogma that as long as babies are vaginally delivered and breastfeeding, then everything’s fine,” Brown says. “But we have now demonstrated and published that those babies who look fine on the outside actually have an issue in their gut.
“Doctors and moms are reticent to take any action if it seems like the baby’s happy and eating and pooping, and we’re saying you need to intervene,” Brown adds.
As Evolve expands its pipeline of next-generation microbiome-based solutions, Brown and Argabrite believe that its potential impact cannot be overstated. “Once people understand our story, they turn around and ask, ‘Why isn’t everybody using this particular product?’” Argabrite says.
Brown concurs: “If we’re right, this is one of the most important public health initiatives since vaccines or antibiotics. And we believe we are right.”