The ZBiotics Founding Story
Where we’ve been, and a preview of where we’re going
The story of ZBiotics starts long ago, at a science camp in Sacramento, CA. There at Mira Loma High School, 9-year-old Zack Abbott took the first step on a journey that would eventually lead to the founding of ZBiotics and the launch of the world’s first genetically engineered probiotic.
Like many pioneers, Zack Abbott’s path from science camp to microbiologist-inventor was anything but straight. Though he studied molecular and cell biology during college at UC Berkeley, his first jobs out of school were decidedly non-scientific. Zack worked as a bartender, played international rugby for team USA in the Maccabi Games, and worked building houses for a nonprofit on Indian reservations across Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada.
It wasn’t until 2006, when he found a job at an analytical chemistry lab back in Berkeley, CA, that Abbott’s career as a scientist began. From there, he worked his way back to biology, first by joining a lab at UC Davis studying treatments and vaccines for HIV, then later by making his way to graduate school at the University of Michigan.
There, Abbott studied under Professor Michele Swanson, the former President of the American Society of Microbiology. During the 6 years he worked with Dr. Swanson, Abbott became an expert on bacteria and microbial genetics. He developed a deep understanding of modern genetic engineering. And in 2015, he earned his PhD in Microbiology & Immunology.
During his PhD training, Abbott learned how scientists work with microbes. He was amazed to learn that using genetic engineering, microbes could change their behavior or even perform new functions. As far back as the 1970s, scientists started genetically engineering microbes to produce useful things like medicines, chemicals, and ingredients. By turning microbes into miniature factories, scientists created incredible new tools that today benefit humans all over the world. In academic labs, scientists today continue to use genetic engineering to change microbial behavior – often to better understand nature or to perform many different useful functions. Zack was deeply impacted by the incredible breadth and potential of this technology, and he used his PhD to become an expert in it himself.
But Zack had a new idea. He wanted to engineer probiotic microbes to do something useful directly inside the human body. Combining the tools of genetic engineering with the good-for-you microbes already around us, his goal was to create something new: a microbe “trained” to do something that helped people live healthier, happier lives.
So in 2016, Zack started ZBiotics. He rented laboratory space in Berkeley, California, just down the road from Cal. For the next 12 months, Zack spent every waking moment in the lab. At the time he lived in Sacramento, but that was a 90-minute drive from Berkeley on a good day. To keep his experiments running, Zack took to sleeping on the floor near his lab bench, working at all hours.
The idea behind ZBiotics was broad. But now Zack had to narrow it down to a single 1st product. He knew that it needed to be something that both leveraged the technology and excited people. Abbott created a list of dozens of things he thought he could build and shared it with friends and family. Their response was surprising and consistent. Of all the ideas Zack pitched, the one that sparked the most enthusiasm was a microbe engineered to metabolize a byproduct of alcohol, helping you feel better the day after drinking.
Abbott got to work to make that idea a reality. And when after 12 months of work he finally emerged from the lab, he had done it. In April 2017, Zack walked out of his Berkeley lab with what would become the world’s 1st genetically engineered commercial probiotic: a microbe engineered to break down acetaldehyde.
Though the invention process had been a success, Zack knew that research and development was only part of the puzzle. To get his invention to market, he needed to build a company. He needed a team. In May 2017, Zack partnered with Stephen Lamb, a grad student just finishing up a dual JD/MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania. Together as co-founders, Abbott and Lamb started bringing ZBiotics the company to life.
The first challenge was simple: determine if anybody would buy Abbott’s invention. Zack and Stephen had the conviction that genetic engineering could be used to make products that would benefit people’s lives in incredible new ways, and that people would consequently want those products. However, at a time when every food brand was promoting “non-GMO” on the label, Zack and Stephen knew that they would have to work to convince others that their conviction was true: that regular people would accept a transparently genetically engineered product.
So Zack and Stephen got to work. They moved their lab from Berkeley to a bigger space in San Francisco. Working around the clock, Zack could make 200 samples every 36 hours. Three days a week they would load up on fresh samples and carpool down the 101 freeway into the heart of the San Francisco peninsula, where they’d hand-deliver vials of “ZB” to friends, prospects, and potential investors. The response was amazing, and word started to spread. Before they knew it, they were getting inbound requests for more samples every hour – Zack couldn’t make them fast enough. ZBiotics was in business.
In January 2018, they joined Y Combinator – the startup “accelerator” program behind companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Instacart. They raised funding. Zack and Stephen hired a team, and for the next 2 years, together they worked to get ZBiotics to market. They ran safety trials. Built a supply chain. Designed a brand. They worked with experts around the world to validate the product’s safety, functionality, and compliance. They ran a crowdfunding campaign and patented the technology.
Finally, in August 2019, three years after Zack started his journey, ZBiotics launched to the world. It was the 1st genetically engineered probiotic ever to come to market, something we remain proud of to this day. Since launch, ZBiotics has grown as a team and expanded our lab. We’ve weathered the impact of the pandemic and sold ZBiotics to tens of thousands of people around the US. We’ve been featured in the press and were honored as a Finalist by Fast Company in their 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards.
And while we are so excited about our first product, we remain tied to Zack’s original vision: engineering microbes to help us live healthier, happier lives. That is why the science never stops at ZBiotics, and why we are currently working on building new products. Stay tuned for our second product, coming in 2021.
For now, our work continues.