Neil Grimmer’s lunch was entirely green. We were meeting at Gregorys Coffee in midtown Manhattan, where most people order lattes and doughnut holes, but he’d managed to sniff out the most healthful items on the menu. On the table, there was a dark green juice and a yogurt concoction called the “Green Wonder,” an unappetizing-looking mush that, among many other things, contained granola, almonds, spinach, flaxseed, and kale.
“Part of me thinks this is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had,” he said, spooning it into mouth. “But I keep eating it.”
Grimmer was half joking. As a longtime Californian, a former vice president of Clif Bar, and the cofounder of Plum Organics — a startup that brought kale, quinoa, and purple carrots into baby food — he has eaten his fair share of healthful green stuff. And however unappetizing his meal choices were that day, they had been generated by an algorithm created by his new company, a “personalized nutrition platform” named Habit that suggests diets based on individual DNA. Via an at-home test Habit will offer when it launches in January 2017, Grimmer had discovered that he was both genetically sensitive to caffeine and reacted best to a low-carb, low-fat, high-protein diet. Thus, the juice and bowl of mush.
“As bizarre and gnarly as it was, it kind of checked the box,” the 45-year-old with sleeve tattoos said, smiling.
The tech industry has always aimed its capitalist ray gun at our most essential human habits and set it to “disrupt” — communication, relationships, breathing. It has done so with varying degrees of success for everything from mayonnaise to periods. But over the past decade, the $6.3 billion weight-loss-product industry has been a particularly desirable target for the valley’s entrepreneurs. The declining sales of meal plans including SlimFast, Weight Watchers, and Lean Cuisine have signaled an opening in the market, paving the way for modern dietesque companies such as Soylent, Sakara, and iDiet. Their pitches vary, but each has an underlying theme that’s as old as it is new: Follow our science-based program, and your body will feel and look better.
If you grew up on Rice-A-Roni and Hamburger Helper, some of the meal plans might seem downright absurd. But in the Bay Area — the birthplace of the highbrow farm-to-table movement and a safe space for grown men to walk around in toe shoes — it’s par for the course.
Grimmer’s Habit is unique because it combines three Silicon Valley startup memes in one streamlined company: at-home DNA testing (à la 23andMe), an easy-to-use app that makes personalized food recommendations (à la Prepd), and a meal-delivery service (à la Blue Apron).
The two-hour, $299 Habit initiation process begins and ends with a smartphone app. Once you receive a DIY test kit in the mail, you’ll be instructed to download the Habit app, which will guide you through an at-home bodily fluid draining session. The DNA portion of the test asks you to swab the inside of your cheek. The bloodwork portion requires that you prick your finger, draw some blood, and dab it on a spot card. Then you’re asked to slurp up something Grimmer described as a “metabolic-challenge test” (“basically like a vanilla milkshake,” he said) and draw blood two more times over a two-hour period. The second portion of the test, according to Grimmer, is meant to test how you process fats and carbohydrates. Once you complete your brief foray into amateur biohacking, you bundle up your bodily fluids and send them to a third-party lab working with Habit. Meanwhile, you can continue the onboarding process on the company’s smartphone app by creating a profile of your goals, exercise habits, and dietary preferences.
The lab will analyze your spit and blood, create a file of raw information, and send it back to Habit within a week. The company will promptly load the information into your app. That’s your cue to attend a half-hour session with one of Habit’s registered dieticians, at which you’ll go over the results and discuss any dietary adjustments you might want to make.
Finally, all of this information is populated on the personalized dashboard of your Habit app. There, you are assigned one of several “Habit Types.” These profiles inform your optional Habit-provided meal plan, should you choose to purchase one. (One example might be a “Protein Seeker” — someone who has a harder time processing carbohydrates and fat.) It will also inform you via friendly illustrations of cows, coffee cups, and wheat whether your genes indicate a sensitivity to lactose, caffeine, or gluten. If you’re interested in poring over all of the biomarkers your test kit hath wrought, you can download a full report for your own use.
Technically, every Habit meal isn’t whipped up on the spot just for your DNA type. The company begins with a few base dishes made to fulfill the aforementioned Habit Types, and then, depending on your personal diet restrictions or calorie requirements, it adds or removes ingredients along the way. For instance, a salad for someone with high-carb needs might be filled with quinoa, whereas another person with high-protein needs might get a slab of salmon. Each meal ranges from $12 to $15 a pop.
As for what it might taste like? “It cuts across a lot of different ethnicities,” Grimmer said. “It’s fresh, local. It has all the tenets of California cuisine.” When it launches next year, Habit will only offer meal plans in the Bay Area, but Grimmer is optimistic about the future of the company, envisioning markets in Los Angeles and in New York in the near future.
Grimmer, a 45-year-old father of two with a goatee, is not a geneticist or dietician. Rather, he is a three-time Ironman triathlon finisher who — after cofounding Plum Organics, growing it at a “meteoric” pace over the period of six years, and eventually selling it to the Campbell Soup Co. — realized he was very out of shape.
“After we sold the company, my wife kind of held the mirror up for me and was like, ‘You’re a fucking mess,’” Grimmer said. “There was a little bit of dad bod going on there.”
Most people might’ve Googled some weight-loss tips, signed up for a CrossFit class, or cut cheese from their diet. But Grimmer is not one to move through life casually. In an interview with Bloomberg, he recalled taking a McDonald’s job flipping burgers as a high schooler. The job lasted for one week, after which he became a vegan for 12 years. When he graduated high school in 1989, the Schenectady, New York, native escaped to the East Bay to play in a punk band, rubbing elbows with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and opening for Green Day. He wandered into the art world, attending the California College of the Arts in Oakland, working as the assistant for the sculptor Alan Rath, and making art on a meager income. Grimmer eventually made the switch to product design after realizing, as he told Bloomberg, “we were all doing the same work but they were solving people’s problems.” He went back to school for an MFA in product design from Stanford, which landed him a job at the design firm Ideo, at which he worked with major food companies including PepsiCo, Cargill, and McDonald’s. (He also helped create one of the first incredibly rudimentary food loggers for the PalmPilot.) It wasn’t until he became a dad that he realized the same foods he was eating as a self-described “health nut” were nowhere to be found in baby food. He founded Plum Organics on that idea in 2007. People literally ate it up. By 2012, the company was generating $93 million in gross sales a year.
Grimmer approached his dad bod in the same way he approached the rest of his life: by dedicating nearly all of his time and resources to understanding how it worked. He sought out expert doctors and scientists. He got blood work. He got his genome sequenced. When we met up at the café, he showed me a picture of himself attached to a ventilator while riding a stationary bike — a test he underwent for 45 minutes to determine how much fat and carbohydrates he burned at different power levels.
His journey was not unlike those of techies who, through tracking their bodily functions and activities, pioneered the quantified-self movement in 2010. (Today, this obsession plays out all over Silicon Valley to various extremes, ranging from wearing a Fitbit to taking an interest in companies that want to harvest young people’s blood.) But for what it’s worth, Grimmer is self-aware enough to know that his quest mirrored a certain San Francisco stereotype.
“That’s where shit like this happens,” he told me. “Where you’re like, ‘Oh, I need my whole genome sequenced.’ Like, ‘Oh, call Fred. He knows someone who can sequence your genome.’”
At the conclusion of his marathon testing, Grimmer received some bleak results. He was prediabetic. Plus, because of his genetic sensitivity to caffeine, the three huge Peet’s Coffees he drank every day had put him at a high risk of having a heart attack. Grimmer sat down with physicians who specialize in examining interactions between genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, and together they reimagined his diet, replacing coffee with green tea, among many other things. Six months later he’d lost 25 pounds, and his blood work had improved. For Grimmer, the experience was enlightening. As someone who is passionate about public health, he wanted to teach other people about it. But he also knew that practically, the kind of biomedical bootcamp he had endured was only available to the wealthy, at boutique health resorts like Canyon Ranch spa.
“I realized that that process I went through was largely inaccessible to most people in this country,” Grimmer said. “A little bit of the Silicon Valley problem, a little bit of a money problem. The big aha! was: How do you take all of that and make it accessible to millions of Americans? Figure out how to take all of that complex shit and make it easy to understand, so that you can just see it on your phone?” And so Habit was born. The system’s main selling point is that it can translate DNA tests into real, actionable food recommendations, without the grand medical expenses that come along with bloodwork or expert consultation. But both the science and the service of genetic diet consultation have existed long before Grimmer discovered it. He is, by no means, the first entrepreneur to introduce the concept of a magical biomedical process to the Valley.
This year, the tech industry watched in horror as Theranos, the blood-testing startup that was once valued at $9 billion, slowly crumbled after a Wall Street Journal report alleged its core technology was faulty. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, had built the company around her own life story as an ambitious and particular pioneer in the field. She had marketed the company with an incredible savviness, collecting gushing cover story after cover story in the press, all while closely guarding the supposed research she’d used to pitch the company. The only thing that was missing was the actual innovation.
It’d be unfair to draw a direct connection between Theranos and Habit. After all, the former’s mistakes alerted or misled many patients who needed the information to make medical decisions. The worst that Habit’s potential imprecision might do is leave you with more quinoa in your salad than your body actually needs. But the two companies do show us what can happen when Silicon Valley’s idealist startup culture attempts to apply its “move fast and break stuff” mantra to emerging biomedical technologies. Any talented entrepreneur can ace a company narrative, ensure a simple and beautiful presentation, and make a dazzling pitch to the public. The only thing that can’t be forced through sheer force of will, however, is science.
The concept of nutrigenomics — the study of how our genes interact with the nutrients and minerals we consume — began sometime in the B.C. era when the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius said that one man’s food is another man’s poison. Lucretius never saw Gattaca or tasted Marmite, but it turns out the dude was presciently wise. Over the last century, scientists have learned that many of our more severe genetic disorders can be managed by diet. But since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, there’s been a greater focus on understanding why individuals respond differently to the same foods and drinks, based on common gene variations. As Eran Elinav, an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, told The New York Times earlier this year, “The same dietary advice cannot be good for everyone, because we are all different. This is why we have failed so miserably at controlling the obesity epidemic.” In other words, the omniscient food pyramids that were dutifully hung in our nation’s public school cafeterias were lying to us all along.
In practice, nutrigenomics involves pinpointing genetic variations that offer clues as to how your body reacts to certain foods. So, take the gene ACE (a very nicely named gene). ACE produces an enzyme that helps regulate the body’s response to sodium. But if you carry a certain variant of this gene and also regularly eat a lot of salty, delicious french fries, you could have a greater risk for high blood pressure. There’s also GLUT2 (a badly named gene), which regulates your sugar intake. People with certain variants of GLUT2 have greater cravings for sugar. Grimmer’s sensitivity to caffeine (and therefore, heart attacks) is caused by a variant of the gene CYP1A2, which makes him a slow metabolizer of coffee.
Many experts in the field of nutrition research have warned against the idea of offering nutritional advice based on our genes, arguing that the science is too new and incomplete. In 2014, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics even published a statement saying as much. But the science has grown exponentially over the past five years, and many doctors, researchers, and dieticians have begun using it in the field, especially when counseling athletes. Several companies, including Interleukin Genetics, Vitagene, and Nutrigenomix, work with health care professionals or nutritionists to provide genetic testing. But unlike Habit, they rarely offer these services directly to consumers for fear the users could misinterpret the results or fail to follow up with a professional.
“At the end of the day, it’s more effective to have this information provided through a health coach,” said Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy, a nutritional sciences professor who founded Nutrigenomix four years ago. “So rather than just, you know, give someone the information directly on the internet, the right kind of professional will say, ‘Here’s what it means and here’s what we have to do to.’”
The aforementioned DNA testing companies usually test for the specific genes that clinical research has shown to be helpful nutritional indicators. The entry-level test at Nutrigenomix is a set of seven that is meant to explore your basic nutritional makeup. But more hardcore customers can up that number to a more comprehensive 45 genes if they’re willing to shell over $300. That doesn’t mean you’ll get 45 separate recommendations, though. The company’s test for gluten alone consists of six genetic markers. In other words, it’s a process that pretty much requires a follow-up appointment with an expert to interpret your results.
Habit, on the other hand, doesn’t list a specific number of genes in its test, but instead claims to use a “systems-based approach beyond genes.” It collects 60 different biomarkers, which according to a press rep include: “nutrition-related blood markers, how these markers change in response to the metabolic-challenge beverage, genetic variations within your DNA, and several body metrics.” Those are crunched into Habit’s proprietary algorithm, “the Nutritional Intelligence Engine,” which synthesizes the data and delivers recommendations to your app.
But according to experts, convoluting gene tests with other, less solid biomarkers can compromise the very precise science needed to best practice nutrigenomics. Nanci Guest, a sport dietitian and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, says that startups in this field often cut corners to ensure their companies can be scalable, skirting the traditional culture of peer-reviews in the scientific community or failing to have experts on their scientific boards to oversee lab procedures.
“We look at research and we say, ‘Anything proprietary is marketing,’” Guest, who serves on the scientific advisory board for Nutrigenomix, said when I offered a hypothetical company similar to Habit. “You can’t run a study and say, ‘We have this proprietary algorithm that will create the best program for you. And we have the research to show it.’ Unless you can tell me what that algorithm is and I can replicate the study, we cannot give this out. I want to test your hypothesis.”
The “propriety shake” — the so-called metabolic challenge — provided for the second part of Habit’s test kit, for instance, is an example of an entrepreneurial shortcut that introduces more variables into the blood’s chemistry. A person’s blood is influenced by even the slightest changes in a person’s diet or exercise program, like a morning run or a week of eating out at restaurants, according to Guest. Not to mention that a two-hour test would not be enough to fully understand how your body processes fats and carbohydrates. Guest says she would need to see how the blood reacts after a much longer period of time, potentially several days.
“Through my … clinical education and the research I’ve done, it’s complex,” she said. “I know with 100 percent certainty that you cannot accurately predict someone’s nutritional needs based on the results of a two-hour test that includes consuming a shake.”
Asked to provide clinical evidence to support the shake portion of its test, Habit’s representatives cited a 2015 review article in Genes & Nutrition that discussed the concept of a theoretical shake that is made up of certain amounts of fat, sugar, and protein. The study itself acknowledged that “information on challenge responses of wide range of processes is lacking” and underlined the “need for harmonization and standardization of challenge tests.”
“The biomarkers proposed seem reasonable, but any recommendations can only be made on saturated fat, glucose, and protein,” Guest said in reference to the review. “There could never be any inferences drawn on any vitamin, mineral, or any other nutrient.”
Habit declined to provide details on the contents of its shake.
“If we don’t know what the heck is going on behind the scenes, we can’t prove or disprove that it’s actually scientifically based, it’s accurate, and it’s going to be effective,” Guest said. “Anything that gets too secret-formula-like is getting into the witchcraft domain.”