Wyss Lumineer Jonathan Scheiman, Founder and CEO of Wyss startup FitBiomics, reflects on his journey from being a college athlete to a Wyss postdoc to the leader of a successful biotech company
By Jessica Leff
Elite athletes are as rare as centenarians: both groups make up about 0.01% of the human population. This begs the question: what is unique about these super performers/the super fit, and can we use that information to improve the health of all humans throughout their lifespan? That was the central idea behind the sports genomics project at the Wyss Institute, which aimed to decode the microbiome of the healthiest and most fit individuals and translate that into next-generation probiotics. Three years after the project began, Jonathan Scheiman, Ph.D. founded FitBiomics to commercialize this technology.
From the basketball court to the lab
Before pursuing his Ph.D. in biomedical science, Scheiman was an athlete. He played for the St. John’s University basketball team, winning a Big East Championship and competing in the NCAA tournament while majoring in biology and minoring in creative writing.
When he joined the Wyss Institute as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of George Church, Ph.D. in April 2012, he started working on genomics technology development, cellular engineering, and in situ sequencing. Scheiman explains, “I was always super excited by the mantra of the Wyss and the notion of Biologically Inspired Engineering, learning from Nature and evolution over billions of years to find solutions for the planetary and human health challenges of our time.”
Eventually, he transitioned to a project that combined his passions for athletics and biotechnology: studying elite athletes’ microbiomes and combining these insights with cutting-edge research to create health solutions for everyone. As he worked to refine and de-risk this technology, he also learned a great deal about scientific leadership in an incredibly stimulating environment of people from diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise with the resources to make disruptive discoveries. Scheiman explains, “The Wyss’ notion that innovation doesn’t happen unless you’re willing to take risks and think differently, and the focus on translation, have served as an essential foundation for how I think about entrepreneurship.”
Five years of FitBiomics
In April 2018, FitBiomics spun out of the Wyss to translate this technology, with Scheiman as its Founder and CEO. The company looks at microbes that are unique or enriched in super-performers, like elite athletes, and turns that information into next-generation health and longevity solutions for the broader population. Since then, they’ve transformed these discoveries into intellectual property and real-world products. Scheiman says, “This really is about innovation. We are radically reimagining how we think about health, healthcare, and how we can use microbiome innovations to not necessarily treat disease, but ultimately help prevent it.”
Their first product, Nella, is a probiotic supplement using unique, proprietary genetic strains of Lactobacillus (LAB) species to improve sleep and gut health. The team at FitBiomics knew that LABs already had regulatory approval and manufacturers knew how to grow and scale them. So, they were able to quickly isolate them and translate their findings into a consumer product. They started an open label study during the pandemic, which was followed up with a clinical trial through a partnership with a pharma company and a professional soccer club. In addition to validating the benefits of Nella, they have identified molecular biomarkers tied to the gut-immune axis, which provide insights into potential mechanisms of action for improved quality of sleep.
Their newest offering boldly aims to make fatigue obsolete with a supplement using Veillonella species, appropriately called V-Nella. This is directly derived from research started at the Wyss that’s been further de-risked and industrially scaled-up so this anaerobic microorganism can be commercially available. The company published a preclinical study in Nature Medicine showing their microbes can promote endurance, received GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) affirmation (a designation given to food additives meaning it is shown to be safe for its intended use by qualified experts), and performed a small human pilot clinical study. More recently, they completed a decentralized human clinical trial called Project V to assess how this bacterial strain has broad benefits in a diverse population, with results expected soon.
Looking back and looking ahead
Now that FitBiomics has made it past the crucial five-year mark, Scheiman has some advice for future scientific entrepreneurs: “Don’t be afraid to think differently and pursue a crazy idea. Your ideas are only crazy because people haven’t done them yet. At the same time, surround yourself with smart people that you trust, and be sure to both research and de-risk those ideas.”
From partnerships with Olympic athletes, global leaders in probiotic manufacturing, and pharma companies, to a new product launch, FitBiomics shows no signs of slowing down. “We can continue to use the principles learned at the Wyss Institute and follow the blueprint we set up with Nella – learning, iterating, and optimizing – to bring future innovations to market. That’s what evolution is: competing against various elements in society and using nature’s toolkit to find the solutions.”