A PhD Scientist Invented the World’s 1st Engineered Probiotic, To Help The Body Process Alcohol

It works by mimicking the natural function of the liver. And it’s part of a new category of ingredients that use biotechnology to help people lead healthier lives.

May 4, 2020

 Zack Abbott in Lab

Dr. Zack Abbott didn’t follow the typical scientist’s path. He worked in HIV research, then got his PhD in Microbiology & Immunology from the University of Michigan. But rather than go into academia afterward, Zack dove into the research project that would eventually become ZBiotics. He holed up in his lab in Berkeley, California – often sleeping next to his lab bench – and after 12 months emerged with the prototype of the world’s 1st genetically engineered probiotic. 

Now just three years later, over 10,000 people have tried ZBiotics, and the company is growing rapidly. Zack and his co-founder Stephen have raised over $5M from Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists, participated in the prestigious Y Combinator startup program, and just recently were honored by Fast Company as a finalist in the 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards. Their product is changing how people drink alcohol and, in so doing, opening people’s eyes to the incredible potential of engineered biology to improve consumer health.

ZB Prototypes

A Novel Idea

Scientists have been genetically engineering bacteria for decades – often to produce drugs or other helpful molecules. The concept (powerful though it remains) has always been simple: engineer bacteria to be miniature factories, producing molecules for human use.

But Zack Abbott saw things a bit differently. As a microbiologist, he views bacteria not just as tools, but as partners. And since the early days of his PhD, that vision gave Zack a novel idea...

What if we could “train” bacteria to do helpful things for us?

We could use genetic engineering to give good bacteria new powers: specific abilities that improve our health and daily lives. Then, we could add these newly “trained” bacteria to our food and drink in the form of a probiotic. By eating one of these engineered probiotics, we could give our bodies its special power.

And while Zack could think of countless “powers” to give these bacteria, his research gave him a surprising idea of where to start: alcohol.

Zack Abbott presenting his research at SynBioBeta 2018

Zack Abbott presenting his research at SynBioBeta 2018

Alcohol vs. Biotechnology

The human body can process alcohol, but not perfectly. Drinking causes a toxin called acetaldehyde to build up in your gut, wreaking havoc on your body and causing the next morning to feel anywhere between a bit foggy and downright miserable.

The problem of acetaldehyde is relatively straightforward. It accumulates in your gut, but only your liver can break it down. Getting from your gut to your liver takes a while, and in the meantime, your body is exposed. If your gut had the power to break down acetaldehyde, you’d be fine. But it doesn’t.

This is where Zack figured an engineered probiotic could help. By engineering a bacteria to break down acetaldehyde, then eating that bacteria, you can give your gut that power.

It would be temporary – and require some planning ahead – but it would give your body an ability it’s never had. And judging by the enthusiastic response to this idea by his friends and colleagues, Zack knew that if he could build it, people would come flocking.

The Inventor Gets to Work

After finishing his PhD, Zack worked for a year designing clinical trials for drug companies. But he couldn't shake his idea. So in 2016, Zack dove headlong into the research project that would become ZBiotics.

He rented laboratory space in Berkeley, California, just down the road from his undergraduate alma mater, UC Berkeley. And for the next 12 months, Zack’s every waking moment was in that 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, feverishly working at all hours: devoted to the science.

Zack’s lab space (and sometime bedroom) in Berkeley, CA

Zack’s lab space (and sometime bedroom) in Berkeley, CA

When he finally emerged, Zack had created what would become the 1st genetically engineered probiotic ever: a friendly bacteria engineered to break down acetaldehyde.

Science Was the Easy Part

To this day, Zack claims that the science was the easy part: “Back then, success was simple to understand: did the science work or not? If I could engineer the bacteria to break down acetaldehyde at a physiologically relevant rate, I had something valuable. And while getting there took time, I had the knowledge and training to do it.”

Now, though, Zack needed to convert his science experiment into a business. For this, he knew he needed some help: “I’m a scientist,” Zack said. “I never had been an entrepreneur – never had to work through regulations, find manufacturers, or sell products. To make ZBiotics a reality, it had to be more than one man in a lab. I needed a co-founder.”

That’s where Stephen Lamb entered the picture. Stephen was a graduate student who had previously worked in the food industry and was now finishing up a joint JD/MBA at Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Zack remembers, “Stephen had this rare combination of business and legal expertise, and he knew how to operate in uncertainty. Given we were about to embark on a highly uncertain venture, I knew he’d be the right partner for ZBiotics.”

Zack Abbott and Stephen Lamb in Lab

Stephen Lamb and Zack Abbott in their new lab in San Francisco

Getting Off the Ground

For the next 2 years, Zack and Stephen worked to get ZBiotics to market. They wrote and filed patents. Built a manufacturing process. Crisscrossed the country looking for production partners. Pored over hundreds of pages of FDA regulations. Designed a brand. And tested the product extensively in the lab.

But for all their work, they were missing something. Getting ZBiotics to market would require a huge investment in clinical trials and regulatory fees – all before they could legally sell the product. Until they had the money to make that happen, ZBiotics would remain in the lab.

A breakthrough came when Zack and Stephen were accepted into the Winter 2018 class of Y Combinator (“YC”) – Silicon Valley’s preeminent startup “accelerator” program and the funder of companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Instacart.

Zack and Stephen on their first day of YC

Getting accepted into YC gave Zack and Stephen a platform to meet investors. Before long, they had raised over $3 million from some of Silicon Valley’s top angels and venture capital firms, including Khosla Ventures, Oyster Ventures, and Social Capital. That funding gave ZBiotics the momentum it needed to get to market.

Testing 1, 2, 3…

The funding paid for the safety testing needed to officially validate the product ahead of launch. And it helped Zack and Stephen produce enough samples to get the product out into people’s hands.

Before long, Zack and Stephen had handed out over 10,000 free samples. Taking to heart YC’s mantra to “make something people want” – they used the sample feedback they received to improve the product over time, until people were loving it.

“We kept running out of samples! Every Saturday Zack would go into the lab to make a batch, and by Friday the next week we’d be out. It was a good problem to have – and one that told us that the product was ready for primetime,” says Stephen.

The World’s 1st Genetically Engineered Probiotic

Finally, after addressing each challenge and solving each problem, ZBiotics launched in August 2019 as the 1st genetically engineered probiotic ever to come to market.

ZBiotics 6-pack at Launch Party

The ZBiotics 6-pack

Since then, the company has taken off. People have absolutely loved the product. Despite the fact that ZBiotics does very little direct marketing, their sales have grown 25% month-over-month – primarily through word of mouth. Demand has been so high that production has often struggled to keep up; they’ve already sold out multiple times this year.

And customers aren’t the only ones who’ve taken notice. Earlier this year, ZBiotics secured a new Seed venture capital round, bringing their total funding to $5.7M to date. They were honored as a Finalist in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards, and have been written up everywhere from Forbes to TechCrunch to Business Insider.

A Better Tomorrow

But while there’s been a heap of excitement about the first product, ZBiotics remains tied to Zack’s original vision: partnering with good bacteria to improve our health and daily life.

Today, ZBiotics has grown its team and footprint. They’re already developing their second product, set to launch next year. And they’re working hard to meet demand for this first product – even in the era of social distancing.

It all stems from that original idea, and the underlying premise that by developing great science in partnership with the microbial world, we can build incredible things.

Zack Abbott and Stephen Lamb at ZBiotics Launch Party

Interested in Learning More?

If you're want to find out more about ZBiotics' first product, you're in the right place. Read below to see what the public reaction has been, and where to find ZBiotics yourself.