We are already in the final stages of expanding our Seraphina line! Similar to fatty15, these new natural molecules will be science-backed protectors against the degradation of aging. In addition to this, our parent company, Epitracker, Inc., will be kicking off its second spin-out company, Aluino, providing healthy aging products for pets. Furthermore, we are tweaking our natural molecules ever so slightly in the laboratory to optimize them as drugs against progressive diseases currently without cures, including pulmonary fibrosis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
As part of my series about the “Female Disruptors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson, epidemiologist and Co-Founder & CEO of fatty15.
Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson is the CEO & Co-Founder of fatty15, an emerging lifestyle brand bringing the first-to-market science-backed, a once-daily dietary supplement containing the first fatty acid to be discovered in 90 years, C15:0, to help consumers maximize the potential of healthy living with age. In addition to her role at fatty15, Stephanie is serial entrepreneur and veterinary epidemiologist who successfully co-founded and launched Seraphina Therapeutics, Inc., a health and wellness company, and Epitracker Inc., a therapeutics discovery company.
Prior to Seraphina and Epitracker, Stephanie launched two health research programs within the Department of Defense and non-profit sector and founded public health education programs in the community and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her novel approach to discovering therapeutic candidate to improve animal and human health has been featured on NPR’s Science Friday, CBS, BBC, National Geographic, J&J Innovations: Powerful Ideas Series, Boehringer Ingelheim’s Innovation Awards, and San Diego Venture Group's Hot Topic Series and Cool Companies (2017, 2018, 2019). She has over 60 peer-reviewed scientific publications and book chapters and is the lead inventor on 40 issued and pending patents. For her entrepreneurial work in the health industry, Stephanie was awarded the Department of Human and Human Services Secretary's Award for Innovations in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Stephanie received her B.S. in Animal Physiology and Neuroscience from UC San Diego, D.V.M. from Tufts University, M.P.H. from Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, and was a National Research Council Associate with the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center. Stephanie has worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. She is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow for Life.
Additional notes: Beyond Epitracker and Seraphina, Stephanie has dedicated her career to improving animal and human health, including leading investigations on the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on wild dolphins, chairing investigations into unusual marine mammal stranding events, founding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Pets, Healthy People program, and founding the Gap Junction STEM program for veterinary and middle school students.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Over the past 20 years, as a veterinarian helping the Navy care for their amazing dolphins who now live more than 50% longer than their wild counterparts, we began discovering interesting parallels between older dolphins and older people. Just like humans, some older dolphins developed high cholesterol, chronic inflammation, and even Alzheimer’s disease, while others did not.
By studying archived serum samples collected over the Navy dolphins’ lifetimes as part of their routine care, we discovered over a hundred molecules (also present in humans) that appear to protect healthy aging. One of these molecules was C15:0, a trace saturated fatty acid found in butter and some types of fish. Growing evidence now supports that C15:0 is the first essential fatty acid to be discovered in 90 years.
With these discoveries, Eric (my Navy physician husband) and I kickstarted our parent company, Epitracker, Inc., and spinout company, Seraphina Therapeutics, to develop new consumer products, food ingredients, and therapeutics to enable healthy aging in both dolphins and humans. In addition to this, our most recent venture has been the development of fatty15, a revolutionary lifestyle brand featuring a daily dietary supplement containing pure, encapsulated FA15™, a powder form of C15:0.
Thus, my story has been less of a path and more of a series of unexpected events that have led to a fun and fulfilling career.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Our work is challenging the current approach to health and aging.
Unfortunately, after we reach about the age of 30, our bodies stop building and start degrading. This degradation puts us at a higher risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. Currently, we are battling these diseases with a myriad of drugs — one for high blood pressure, one for high cholesterol, another for diabetes, and so on.
Instead of solely fighting against these diseases at the later stages of aging, our team at Seraphina is combining advanced technologies with learnings from dolphin health to slow age-related breakdown at the earliest stages.
How do we do this? We study thousands of natural molecules in archived dolphin and human serum to identify which molecules, over a lifetime, are protective against the onset of aging-driven diseases. We then take pure forms of the most promising natural molecules, extensively test them for efficacy and safety against aging-related conditions (such as inflammation, high cholesterol, etc.) We then advance the best molecules as novel, natural supplements, and food ingredients to help slow aging-related processes.
Our first once-daily oral supplement is fatty15, containing FA15™ (a pure, powder form of pentadecanoic acid, or C15:0), an odd-chain saturated fatty acid present in trace levels in butter, some fish, and some plants. After discovering C15:0 as a promising natural molecule protective of dolphin health, we excitedly found that FA15™ safely lowers inflammation, cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, and tissue fibrosis in the laboratory by targeting key hallmarks of aging, including protecting cellular resilience and improving mitochondrial function. In addition to this, numerous human population studies have shown that people with higher C15:0 blood levels have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and even mortality over a 14-year period. Combined, this data supports that C15:0 is the first essential fatty acid to be discovered in 90 years.
Thus, our approach to improving health by finding what long-lived mammals naturally use to preserve a younger, non-diseased state is disrupting the industry and helping us understand what is essential to keep humans healthy as we age.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was a veterinary student on my farm rotation, I donned an arm’s length glove on a cold winter’s day in Connecticut and began to complete my first pregnancy check on a cow (which is done by sticking your entire arm into the back end of the cow and feeling for the growing calf). After proudly completing my first exam, I confidently stated, ‘Pregnant!’, to my instructor. He replied, ‘Correct. But would you have done anything differently?’ To this, I said, ‘Not that I can think of.’ He responded by saying, ‘Next time, you may want to take off your watch.’
On that day, I learned two lessons. First, pregnancy exams can be effective arm-warmers in the winter. Second, be sure to take a moment before pursuing even a simple endeavor. It will help you from missing the obvious.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
While working with the Navy, my initial published discovery of a shared pre-diabetes state in dolphins and humans resulted in a slew of positive media attention. Because of the unexpected press coverage, my boss, Dr. Mark Xitco (who we call MX), was called up to the Commanding Officer’s Topside office to explain why multiple news agencies were calling the Navy base.
When MX returned from this visit, I apologized for causing a distraction from his already busy week. He replied, ‘Steph — if you aren’t doing work that results in me having to report to Topside, then you aren’t doing your job.’ MX’s sustained mentorship and support of my non-traditional approaches to improving dolphin health over the past two decades has taught me that risks can best change games when you have leadership that encourages you to play.
My other mentors from afar include Dorothy Parker, who taught me how to make a sharp point with humor, and Harper Lee, who (through To Kill a Mockingbird) taught me the importance of letting empathy lead the most important decisions in life.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disrupting an industry can be immensely positive when the result is for a noble cause. On the flip side, disruption for strictly self-serving or monetary gains can lead to less favorable results.
As an example of a good disruption, Seraphina Therapeutics has an overarching mission to improve global health, starting with our fatty15 dietary supplement. Fatty15 contains only C15:0, a saturated fatty acid present in trace levels in butter and other whole fat milk products. Yes, this means we are putting out a saturated fat to protect global health.
Over the past 40-years, humans have drastically reduced their consumption of saturated fats, resulting in decreased dairy whole fat intake. Thanks to our work and others globally, we now know that not all saturated fats are bad. In fact, some (like C15:0) may be essential in supporting our general health and helping protect us against the global pandemics of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
When developing fatty15, we knew that offering C15:0 as a daily saturated fatty acid supplement would disrupt the well-ingrained nutritional guidance against saturated fats. However, our extensive studies conducted over three years, paired with the growing global supportive literature, reinforced our commitment to bringing this discovery to consumers and helping protect against aging health.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1st example: Paraphrased, Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…who spends himself in a worthy cause.’
During my earlier days of challenging norms — from believing that helping dolphins can help people, too…to advocating a dietary saturated fat as essential — many critics were non-believers. Today, the tide has turned, and we have a growing team of scientific and business supporters standing ready with Seraphina to improve global health. I carry Roosevelt’s quote (protected with see-through tape) in my wallet wherever I go to remind me to respect the critics but follow the science — to persevere through the dust, sweat, and blood to make life worthy.
2nd example: When I was completing my Albert Schweitzer Fellowship during veterinary school, Dr. Lachlan Forrow, my mentor and 1985 Nobel Peace Prize recipient said, ‘Don’t let them tell you, you can’t.’
This advice was in response to my desire to start an after-school science education program where veterinary and medical school students would teach science to children in South Boston. This idea was met initially with concerns from the veterinary school who thought that pursuing this project would distract me and other students’ studies. With Lachlan’s advice in mind, I found Sister Ann in Southie, who kindly gave us a room in a convent-turned-after school-facility, in exchange for cleaning the room and painting the walls. Our science education program, called Gap Junction, worked so well that this program still exists today — more than 20 years after heeding Lachlan’s advice.
3rd example: The last example is words of advice that Eric, my husband and Navy physician, received when he learned he was about to head to the Marine Corps base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, during the height of the conflict. A 2-star Marine Corp General called him into his office and said, ‘We’re going to war. Take care of our Marines and Sailors. And don’t mess it up’ (though another word was used instead of ‘mess’).
Our experience of being a married couple separated during wartime (with a rambunctious 2 ½-year-old, no less) provided a whole new perspective on life. This experience has helped us, as co-founders, ride the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. In the end, the steps are simple. Welcome to your new world. Do something good. Don’t mess up the opportunity you have been given.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We are already in the final stages of expanding our Seraphina line! Similar to fatty15, these new natural molecules will be science-backed protectors against the degradation of aging. In addition to this, our parent company, Epitracker, Inc., will be kicking off its second spin-out company, Aluino, providing healthy aging products for pets.
Furthermore, we are tweaking our natural molecules ever so slightly in the laboratory to optimize them as drugs against progressive diseases currently without cures, including pulmonary fibrosis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Over the past 20+ years, I have been lucky enough to work with many women and men who have been supportive of women disruptors in science, including Dr. Kim Kamdar, an insightful venture capitalist at Domain Ventures who led Seraphina’s $6.2M Series A raise. I have found that as a disruptor and regardless of gender, it is important to be confident, humorous, capable, and passionate; in the end, well-addressed counterarguments to skepticism are your best tools to convert challenges to opportunities.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Simon Sinek’s TED2014 talk, ‘Why good leaders make you feel safe’ has had a lasting impact on how I approach leadership. In this talk, Simon describes how great military leaders create an environment of trust and enablement, which is critical to the team’s literal survival in the operational setting. When you trust that your leader has your back and makes you feel safe to take risks to raise the team, the group as a whole succeeds. Conversely, if the leader subdues its employees to raise him or herself, the group will not achieve its greatest potential. Seeing the long-lasting benefits of the military model of trust and enablement, I continually strive to be a servant leader.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
As a veterinarian, having spent 20 years focusing on dolphin health, people are often surprised to hear that my favorite species is human. Here’s why: While animals have the capacity for kindness and compassion, only humans have the ability to combine kindness and compassion with innovation to vastly improve the health of humans, animals, and the earth.
We have traditionally created silos separating human, animal, and environmental health efforts, and these efforts are often pitted against each other. I believe that removing barriers between human, animal, and environmental health provides an untapped opportunity to help all under a single umbrella of One Health. Let’s invest more time and effort in innovating multi-disciplinary approaches that solve problems across health verticals.
Seraphina’s story is a simple but powerful case-in-point: We initially started with helping improve dolphin health and extended our learnings to human health. This cross-seeding effort then resulted in data supporting the first discovered essential fatty acid in 90 years, which may help stem the global public health crisis of obesity and type 2 diabetes. In turn, we also develop every part of our products and packaging to be environmentally sustainable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
What I have learned over the past 20 years of entrepreneurial endeavors: Doing something groundbreaking means you are breaking the ground that others firmly stand upon. In the beginning, expect most people to doubt your discovery or idea. Then, shore up your proof, cause, and passion. Finally, find those special few who see beyond the present and will help your broken ground create fertile soil for a better future. Repeat until you succeed.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
It was a pleasure!