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Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
At The Quality Edit, I’m fortunate to be able to have conversations with brilliant founders fairly often. And I don’t take this privilege lightly! But there’s something extra special about speaking with the CEO of a brand I not only use every day, but also have admired since its founding. I recently sat down with Ara Katz, the founder and co-CEO of Seed, to hear about her journey from the business of tech to the science of the microbiome – and to selfishly pick her brain on all things probiotics, meditation, and life. Read on for what might be The Quality Edit’s nerdiest conversation yet – and then get lost on Seed’s website if you’re still hungry for more on microbes. It’s a massive world of microscopic heavy-lifters.
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Tell me a little about your path to founding Seed. I’d love to know more about your personal background, because it doesn’t seem linear – at first glance. In particular, what influenced your passion for science that’s so clearly reflected in Seed’s approach to research, formulation, and testing?
I almost can’t answer those questions separately. Because existentially and intellectually, they meet at a certain moment. I had started a mobile commerce company and it was doing very well, and I had a miscarriage. I think that miscarriage was a pivotal moment for me, one that had some symbolic meaning. The life I was carrying wasn’t viable, but also, the life I was living wasn’t really viable. I had moved pretty far out of alignment from what I wanted to create in the world, and the kind of meaning that I needed to experience on a daily basis.
It really pushed me to think: what do I want to create? What life is viable for me? I actually got pregnant very shortly after that, and resigned from the tech company I had co-founded – which, as a woman in tech, felt like a huge decision, one that carried more gravity. But it led to a number of other things: I had always wanted to be in health and science, and technology, and during my pregnancy, the microbiome became even more important to me. At the same time, I met my co-founder, Raja, who was also thinking deeply about what he was going to do next. And we both found the microbiome from two different perspectives. Him – academically and scientifically. And myself, from my own personal nerdy journey into the world of PubMed but also existentially, as someone who’s always been on the frontier of different fields, whether it was e-commerce, mobile commerce, or early work I did at the [MIT] Media Lab. I began to see the microbiome as the blockchain of biology. And I think big lens changes like that happen only once or twice in our lifetime.
And while I was pregnant, I think I started to really deeply understand the role of the microbiome in the development of a healthy child, and also the development of my own health in a much more systemic and ecological way than I'd ever been able to even imagine. I began to triangulate that with the fact that there's $4.3 trillion being spent on the wellness industry, with almost no science behind it, and no one's getting any better. We’re dealing with diseases and non-communicable conditions that never existed before this moment in history. Our modern life is not viable.
The microbiome to me is the key that unlocks so many of the confounding medical conditions and symptoms that we are seeing today that we have never seen before. I found that this was a new framework, and an area that was incredibly ripe for innovation – particularly in how science can be translated to impact humans, faster. Both from a preventative perspective, as well as a condition-specific perspective.
I grew up with a dad who’s a crazy environmentalist, with a love for nature and the environment, and a respect for our home on this earth. So then it becomes a systems-thinking approach. It’s a one-health ethos: if you’re looking at human health, you need to zoom out and ask, what does that mean for the environment? What does that mean for the world? And what does that mean for where we’re spending our dollars? And as a company, what does sustainability mean to us? Seed was born out of these questions. How do we become the stewards of translating this frontier field of science to impact both human and environmental health? And how can we do it in a way that’s a new business model for creating sustainable biotech? The microbiome is a great catalyst for thinking in systems, for thinking about things sustainably and ecologically.
So it’s really two-part, for me. How can I create a life of meaning and learning and impact? And can I create science and products that profoundly impact human health, that can optimize the development of the microbiome to prevent some of the health issues we’re seeing today? Can we take this piece of science, and translate it from the point of discovery to impact? We started from that ethos. It wasn’t even about probiotics, it was about the larger vision.
For context, I’m in medical school now for Chinese medicine and acupuncture, and have been fascinated by the microbiome for many years. It’s a field that has so much depth and breadth. Given this complexity, I’ve always admired Seed’s ability both to capture and translate that depth. Particularly in a consumer landscape that has been taught kombucha or yogurt are sufficient probiotics. How have you managed to communicate all of this so successfully — not oversimplifying, but also not overwhelming your consumer? And creating an aperture for people to begin to understand this vast field?
It's a beautiful question. Just to go off on a tangent for a moment: one of the reasons that microbiome science is what it is today, in my opinion, is that it's the first frontier field of science that has ever captured the confluence of East and West. Genomics, for example, did not benefit from thousands of years of an Ayurvedic or Chinese medical perspective at all. Half the world already understands the ideas of the microbiome — not necessarily the biomedical science of it, but the understanding that the gut is like air traffic control. And it has this extraordinary systemic impact on every biological function in your body. I think that’s partially why gut mania has taken hold so quickly. Immunotherapy is not the biggest trend at Erewhon, right?
The answer to how we communicate the microbiome is also just how we communicate in general. Sir Mark Walport, who was a UK scientific advisor, has one of my favorite quotes: “Science isn't finished until it's communicated.” Indisputably, COVID is unfortunately the most apparent case study in scientific communication. Even good science can have a negative impact, can be sensationalized or polarized or perverted, or not even see the light of day. So often at Seed, we talk about meeting people where they are. We work within an incredibly sophisticated framework: nerd, nerdier, nerdiest. We believe that everyone can be a nerd. Everyone can come in, in some capacity, and learn something. It doesn’t mean that we dumb things down — ever. In fact, that’s really not our vibe.
For us, friction is the future. With what I call “one night stand marketing,” you know, one night stands don’t lead to long, healthy marriages. Or they rarely do. You get what you put in. So that friction and investment in someone’s understanding — whether it’s the first time they touch your brand, or maybe the fourth, maybe it takes a second to come back and understand — we believe and focus on that depth. Education itself is an intervention for us. If I could put education on my website to add-to-cart, I would. Education is not just good marketing in my mind. Education itself is a health intervention, it’s a product that empowers you to make the best decisions.
There are moments like in a scientific research paper, or when we speak to healthcare practitioners, where of course we’re very precise, and scientific and clear. But also very educational, because healthcare practitioners don’t always understand the underlying science of probiotics and the mechanisms of the microbiome yet. We love to find new methods of communicating, winking at the right moments — but also offering scientific stewardship at others. There really is no one size fits all. It’s finding the right love language and staying true to who we are. We’re very wary of anything that feels too reductive or diluted. We’re never assuming the lowest common denominator — it’s not even a discussion we have.
In my mind, Seed has been remarkably successful — and polished — from the moment it launched. Did you face any challenges early on, in translating your vision to reality? Or in convincing consumers to “buy in” to the biome?
The thing is, we were never operating on a Kickstarter type of mentality, you know? We set out to create a new standard in the space. We wanted to translate therapeutic-level science into consumer health. So I had a high standard around aesthetic, around language, around packaging — which is an entirely separate conversation, regarding compliance and encouraging people to create a new habit they’ll actually practice daily. We had uncompromising standards before we brought anything to market.
I think actually, it wasn’t as difficult at the beginning as it was later on. It’s harder to scale. That’s what we spend more time thinking about now: maintaining potency, ensuring there’s no dilution in every single facet of the product and business.
That’s something I really admire about Seed: you’re not launching a new flashy product each month. There’s a clear focus on quality over quantity, which is rare with the cycle and pace of the DTC landscape writ large. That being said, are there plans to expand into other verticals, new product lines?
If anything, we really prioritize our research programs and partnerships. We’ve recently announced our gut-brain program with Caltech; we have another big announcement coming in the next few weeks with an academic partner, and how we're working with AI on the future of precision probiotics.
The world I’ve spent the most time in is our vaginal microbiome work with Dr. Jacques Ravel. I get the chills when I talk about it: it’s an area where there’s just not great science due to centuries of medical misogyny, lack of innovation, and lack of attention to medical conditions, to the quality of life of individuals with vaginas who are experiencing these conditions. There is so much suffering in vaginal and women’s health, an untenable level of suffering that surely would not have been tolerated in other populations — certainly not in male populations. So I’m most passionate about our vaginal microbiome work. I think it’s one of the greatest medical needs on which we can have a really significant and meaningful impact.
I could continue this conversation for another hour. But before I let you go — a lighter question, although just as essential: how do you take care of yourself daily? Both as a mom, and as a CEO? Do you have daily rituals or non-negotiables that keep you grounded?
Honestly, the answers are boring and science-backed. One non-negotiable is exercise. I have to move. I think there’s no shortage of reasons for that — scientifically, emotionally, mentally. I believe in the science of sauna, yoga, movement, and meditation. So my mom hack is hot yoga: I hit them all at once. I’ve been doing yoga for over twenty years at this point, so it’s just an hour of moving meditation to me. It’s also a free facial.
The second is, of course, from a food perspective. I eat for me and my microbes. And sleep. Your microbiome has its own circadian rhythm — staying up the extra hour is never worth it for me. In terms of microbiome care, I of course take our Daily Synbiotic, and Pax, my son, takes our PDS-08.
Lastly, from a life meaning perspective: I just don’t go to bed without sitting with my son for a moment, without giving him a kiss, even if he’s already asleep. Sitting for a moment and thinking about what I have. Because what else is the point?
Completely. And most of these answers are not things people can purchase. It’s entirely from within.
Except for the hot yoga studio. You’ll have to buy a class or a membership.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Have a founder you’d like us to interview next? Let us know at email@example.com.