How ZBiotics Landed On Our First Product
Why we started by addressing the problem of rough mornings after drinking
When Zack Abbott, PhD, first had the idea that led to the founding of ZBiotics, he wasn’t looking for a solution to rough mornings after drinking alcohol. He was trying to find a home for a groundbreaking idea that would get people just as excited as he was.
Zack knew that genetic engineering could make people’s lives healthier and happier in many new ways, but how would he convince consumers of that? In his own words, “Ultimately my mission was to advocate for the incredible uses of genetic engineering, and the best way to do that was not to give everybody a science lesson. It's much easier to have people open their minds when you have something they want and that they understand.”
The story of ZBiotics’ first product starts over a decade ago, when Zack was working on his PhD in Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Michigan. He was becoming an expert in bacterial and microbial genetics, fascinated by the way genetic engineering can be used to change microbes’ behavior to make them perform specific, beneficial functions.
In the world of pharmaceuticals, protein drugs (called "biologics") were quickly becoming a rising, powerful class of drug thanks to the combination of genetic engineering and microbes. Scientists were engineering bacteria (among other things) to produce proteins, then isolating those proteins to use as drugs. Zack was excited by how the industry was showing a new way that genetic engineering could benefit our lives. But as he continued learning and researching, he noticed two roadblocks preventing the technology from reaching its full potential.
Problem #1: Protein drugs - the most common way this technology was being deployed - were expensive and complicated to make. Isolating a protein from a microbe makes the protein unstable, requiring certain conditions like constant cold storage. Additionally, scientists often had to use microbes like E. coli, which have strains that can be unsafe for human consumption and require a long, expensive purification process to make the drug safe to use. Cost and logistics limited the use of bioengineering technology to the large companies that could afford it, and it was most lucrative for them to focus on treating diseases, such as cancer or chronic inflammation.
By building out the technology more simply, Zack realized that the application of genetic engineering could be massively broadened for many uses, especially in improving healthy people’s daily lives.
Problem #2: Outside of his lab research, Zack was also concerned about a label he saw every time he went to the grocery store: “non-GMO”.
He recognized that genetic engineering had a significant PR problem, due to a lack of transparency and a historical tie to bad business practices (especially in the agricultural industry). The technology itself had been conflated with the products and industry that made use of it. However, Zack knew this powerful technology could also be leveraged to do good - everything from combating climate change to helping people live healthier lives.
With all this in mind, Zack wanted to find a simpler way to make genetically engineered products more accessible and, along the way, elevate the black-and-white conversation around GMOs.
That’s when he had an idea: cut out the "middleman." He could take a probiotic bacteria—a safely ingestible one—and engineer it to make a protein directly inside the body. Instead of delivering the protein, why not deliver the protein factory? And instead of using it to make yet another prescription drug, what if he made the technology readily available for consumers in their lives?
This radically new idea was exciting to Zack, but he needed to see what other people thought. Before finalizing his PhD in 2015, he entered a pitch competition to present the idea of a genetically engineered probiotic with a specific use: helping the gut recover from radiation exposure. Zack recalls standing on the stage and realizing that it was “...a really cool scientific idea, but objectively, a pretty terrible idea for a consumer business. It was all science and just not at all interesting to people. Eyes were glazing over.”
At the end of his pitch, however, he emphasized that this idea could apply to a broad number of applications. He listed about ten other ideas, such as increasing nutrient absorption from our food, protecting the bodies of astronauts in space, and even feeling better the morning after drinking alcohol.
At that moment, a light bulb went off in Zack’s mind. Seeing their excitement made him realize how he could successfully launch this technology—by solving a tangible, common problem that many people have experienced.
At the post-event reception, people sought out Zack in the crowd, asking to learn more about that last idea about solving rough mornings after drinking. At that moment, a light bulb went off in Zack’s mind. Seeing their excitement made him realize how he could successfully launch this technology — by solving a tangible, common problem that many people have experienced. To have an impact on the way people thought about genetic engineering, he needed to make something that people understood and cared about.
A couple years later, after finishing his PhD and working for a contract research organization designing clinical trials for drug companies, Zack felt ready to make this idea a reality. The first step was to rent a lab in Berkeley, California, where he'd be for the next 12 months. He worked around the clock, sometimes spending the night in a sleeping bag on the floor of the lab to finish an experiment. But his hard work paid off. After a year, he had the first prototype.
“As far as I know, I was the first human to intentionally ingest a genetically engineered probiotic,” remembers Zack. The results were exactly what he had hoped for. Trying it before a night of drinking, he found that he felt better than expected the next morning. And the friends he shared it with reported similar effects. After running additional tests to further validate the prototype's performance, Zack knew he had something worthwhile.
“At that point, I realized I needed to turn the science experiment into a real business,” says Zack. “I started looking for a co-founder because I knew I couldn’t do it all myself. That’s when I was introduced to Stephen Lamb.”
After working together for months, Zack convinced Stephen to join him full-time by taking him out for drinks — and trying the prototype. The results spoke for themselves, and Stephen was on board. Three years later, with a bigger team and a bigger lab, rigorous testing, more funding, and a patent for the technology, the world’s first genetically engineered probiotic was on the market: ZBiotics® Pre-Alcohol Probiotic Drink.
Since then, ZBiotics has continued to grow. More and more people discover it every day. And one of the goals Zack had at the very beginning - to give people a model for a different kind of GMO - is showing signs of bearing fruit.
The success of ZBiotics always depended on whether people would accept a different kind of genetically engineered product in their lives. The core hypothesis was that they would - if a company used genetic engineering responsibly, transparently, and for the good of the customer.
Since day 1, we've been printing “proudly GMO” on every bottle. And it hasn’t hindered growth at all. In fact, it's been quite the opposite.
“I had this hypothesis that people would accept the product if it was transparent, and it's exactly what we've seen,” says Zack. “Most people don’t actually care one way or the other about GMOs and just want a good product. But some people will even say they usually avoid GMOs, but ZBiotics is different because it benefits them directly, delivers on what it promises, and the science makes sense. That's been really validating in its own right.”
That direct benefit harkens back to the original pitch. When you improve life in a tangible way, it makes people’s heads turn. Now that we know we can build that kind of product, and that people are interested in it, it’s time for us to think bigger.
That's another part of that original pitch: the underlying technology can do way more than just this one thing.
So, stay tuned!