“I want to start a movement to empower people to believe in themselves” With Dr. Erika Angle CEO of Ixcela
My goal has always been to empower people to take control of their lives and believe in themselves. I started our company as a way to help people take control of their health. Through our microbiome test, we’re providing customers with the knowledge and insight needed to chart a course toward improved health. We all have the strength and skill to achieve our goals, sometimes it is just our confidence that needs nurturing. I hope that through the work that we do — and through my personal accomplishments — I can continue to empower people and inspire a movement where people feel capable, confident, and enthusiastic about taking responsibility and making changes in the world.
I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle. Dr. Angle received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Erika is the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a Biotechnology start-up company aimed at developing diagnostic tests and natural interventions to improve gut microbiome efficacy and prevent neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases. In 2002 Erika founded Science from Scientists. Erika currently serves on the Massachusetts STEM Council Legislator Education Work Group and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education STEM Advisory Council. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees and Executive Committee at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts. In 2014 the Boston Business Journal selected her as one of the “40 Under 40″ business and civic leaders who are making a major impact in their respective fields in the Boston area. Her accomplishments have also been recognized by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Pinnacle Awards for Emerging Executive. In 2013 the Boston Chamber of Commerce selected her as one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Leaders” in Boston. Selected by L’Oreal Paris as a 2007 Woman of Worth for her work with Science from Scientists, Erika has been featured on Lifetime TV and Nova Science Now on “The Secret Lives of Scientists and Engineers.” She is the host of “The Dr. Erika Show,” an educational science TV show for children. Erika served as a Commissioner for the MA Commission on the Status of Women. Erika was Miss Massachusetts 2004 in the Miss America Scholarship program. At age 11, she became interested in isolating natural antiviral products from an herb. She continued to purse this interest for the next 7 years, winning multiple state, national, and international science fair competitions. Outside of work, Erika enjoys SCUBA diving, skiing and, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, continues her lifelong passion for classical piano. She is married to Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was always passionate about science — even as a child. When I was eleven, I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do for my science fair project. Around that same time, I was on a field trip to a crocodile farm and I learned that when crocodiles are mortally wounded they will flip over on their backs — slip into a coma and essentially “commit suicide.” This bizarre fact inspired the topic for my first science fair project. I wanted to determine whether cells commit suicide when they are infected by viruses. In order to do that, I needed to conduct this experiment outside of the classroom — likely in a lab.
I picked up the telephone book and began calling various labs near where home was to see if anyone would help me conduct my experiment in their lab. Only one person got back to me, Michael, a director of a local public health lab in my hometown. Michael taught me lab protocol and proper techniques to conduct my experiments. Although my experiment eventually led to inconclusive results, I was hooked! The opportunity to work in a lab as a young child was incredibly valuable, and I continued to conduct various studies and trials for the next 6 years (throughout middle and high school), seeing first-hand how to take an experiment from an initial hypothesis to a supported conclusion.
I continued my science journey as an undergraduate at MIT, then received my PhD in biochemistry from Boston University School of Medicine. While I was studying for my PhD, I serendipitously met Dr. Wayne Matson, the father of metabolomics, inventor of the CoulArray, and pin-prick lead detector used in conjunction with the CDC in the 1980s. We collaborated on several research projects and identified several compounds that are significantly relevant to the health of the gut microbiome. Knowing that these findings could potentially change people’s lives — but also that, as things stood, they would likely never leave the world of academia — we were inspired to co-found a gut-microbiome company, Ixcela, in order to help improve people’s lives through gut-health.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Through my experiences, I have learned that life-changing events often happen in unexpected ways. Most notably, my husband and visiting Bermuda when we were invited to take a tour of the America’s Cup Team ORACLE USA’s training facilities. While there, we serendipitously met Scott Tindal, head physiotherapist and team nutritionist, and Craig McFarlane, physical performance manager. They were impressed by the work Ixcela was doing and expressed interest in having their athletes take our microbiome test and follow the recommended nutritional and fitness plans to see what implication it might have on their training and performance. I happily agreed as I was also curious what the results would be.
Over the course of nine months, thirteen professional sailors took the Ixcela test every other month and followed the recommended nutrition, supplement, and fitness plans. The results were staggering. Ixcela’s program had a dramatic impact in improving internal health, and we were named an official partner of ORACLE TEAM USA during the 2017 America’s Cup sporting event. Team ORACLE reported a 30 percent reduction in the number of upper respiratory tract infections and a 47.5 percent increase in athlete availability as a result of participation in the Ixcela program.
Once the America’ Cup was over, Scott and Craig, who we had met while on the tour of the training facility in Bermuda, were so impressed with Ixcela that they joined the Ixcela team as nutritionist and physical performance coach alike. With their joining, Ixcela has now built a tailored nutrition and fitness program with Scott and Craig as consultants to our clients.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The Ixcela approach is focused on restoring one’s “Internal Health” with a sophisticated test that identifies when key small molecules associated with the gut microbiome are out of balance and provides an individualized therapy to restore these molecules to their proper levels. The personalized program includes dietary recommendations, fitness training plans, and supplements specifically targeted at improving gut microbiome health.
Over the last 50 years, our Chief Scientist, Wayne Matson, has analyzed more than 35,000 samples from clinical trials and research studies. Our lab has studied many different diseases including: ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, MCI, Diabetes, Ischemic Heart Disease, Depression, and Schizophrenia, and have linked several gut-microbiome based compounds to these diseases. We stand out because we are science-based, actionable, and have a unique story that substantiates the science behind our test.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Currently, we’re working on scaling the product and business, as we believe everyone can benefit from taking the test and being on the Ixcela Complete program. In addition to providing the product to the general public, we’ve been partnering with professional athletes and sports teams from the NFL to fitness clubs, and organizations such as RedBull to provide quantifiable data and recommendations to improve performance. At the end of the day, it is all about improving overall wellness and quality of life, and we’re looking to revolutionize healthcare using available technology and data.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees thrive?
The biggest piece of advice I can pass on to other CEOs or founders is the importance of building a strong and healthy company culture. Finding individuals who are passionate about their work, are willing to contribute their time, and who collectively thrive off each other’s energy is crucial for employee and company success.
Over the years, I have found that it is incredibly important to honor each other’s accomplishments. Celebrating triumphs together as a team helps contribute to a prosperous atmosphere. To achieve successes, it is crucial to provide employees with relevant training and opportunities to hone their craft. I’m a firm believer that if you sincerely devote time to your staff and encourage their skill sets, you’ll foster the perfect team to help your company succeed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I owe my deepest gratitude to my parents and I certainly wouldn’t be here without their help and encouragement. Growing up, I would often turn to them for advice and suggestions, trusting they would always be both supportive and honest with me.
I’ve also deeply valued the connection with my mentor, Michael, the director of one of the local public health laboratories in my hometown. He instilled a great deal of grit and perseverance in me which I believe has helped to lead to my success today. I’m forever appreciative of Michael because he taught me the most important lesson of them all — that in research, it’s okay for things not to work or for a hypothesis to be disproven. As a child, he never once told me what he thought the results would be and never took the reins on my projects, he guided and encouraged me in a way that allowed me to learn on my own terms. There were many times where I’d have to redesign my experiments, ask different questions and try again. There’s a reason “re”-search is called research.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Ixcela’s mission is to help people improve their health and live longer, better lives. We strive to improve quality of life, reduce risk of disease, and to empower people by helping them to determine what supplements to take, what to eat and how to exercise. If people are happy and healthier, we believe they will be better citizens, both in their family life and career. That’s what we’re striving for — a happier, healthier world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
· Be Persistent: It’s important to realize that you’re rarely going to get it right the first time. However, if you’re persistent and understand that progress may take longer than you think, you will achieve greater success. There is a great quote from one of my favorite action movies in a final race scene when one of the wise characters says to the “hero”- “First to finish, last to die.”
So much of how I motivate myself comes from my belief that persistence and “surviving” difficult things — means beating the competition, or being “the last one standing” — i.e. succeeding.
· Create Balance: It’s important as a CEO to maintain a level-head in every situation, regardless of who’s in the room. You need to recognize that while there will be many successes, there will also be challenging moments, and that how you handle these challenges will ultimately determine your success. Keeping a strong and level head on your shoulders through it all.
· Focus on Self-Improvement: I find that people often spend much of their time comparing and judging themselves against everyone around them, instead of focusing on growing and bettering themselves. It is important as a CEO to hold yourself to a higher standard and to measure yourself against goals that you set for yourself, instead of looking at others to determine your worth.
· Dream Big: All of us have dreams, but only those who have the drive to follow through are the ones who are ultimately successful. As a CEO, it is crucial to remain motivated and to think outside the box when things aren’t going your way — having a dream is good, but having the courage, and stamina to follow through counts a great deal as well. I think that Walt Disney, said it well, “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
· Stay Tough: The path you are about to embark on is going to be tough and it will push you to do things outside of your comfort zone. It’s important to realize that you’ll likely be doing things that aren’t in your “job description” and may even be completely different from what you expected. It’s important to learn how to navigate each task while staying strong mentally and emotionally. Find great mentors, hire great people, invest in their success and they will help you achieve your dreams.
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.
My goal has always been to empower people to take control of their lives and believe in themselves. I started Ixcela as a way to help people take control of their health. Through our microbiome test, we’re providing customers with the knowledge and insight needed to chart a course toward improved health. We all have the strength and skill to achieve our goals, sometimes it is just our confidence that needs nurturing. I hope that through the work that Ixcela does — and through my personal accomplishments — I can continue to empower people and inspire a movement where people feel capable, confident, and enthusiastic about taking responsibility and making changes in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Louisa May Alcott has a famous quote from her poem My Little Kingdom, “I do not ask for any crown / But that which all may win; / Nor try to conquer any world / Except the world within.”
People tend to focus on attaining recognition and reputation achieved through success, when the real prize should be the self-discovery learned along the way. Alcott stressed the importance of self-improvement, and that’s something that I fully support and continue to aim for in my own life. Regardless of opinions or outcomes, if you’re able to absorb feedback to better yourself, then you have already ahead of the curve.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
I would love to sit down and chat with innovators like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Their ideas have completely revolutionized not only the technology and business fields, but our culture as well. It’s really inspiring to see people take their business ideas and visions to an entirely new level and have such a disruptive and positive impact on society. Something that I really admire about these individuals is their desire to push the capacity of human achievement. Being able to pick their brains, ask questions, and hopefully even receive a few pieces of advice would be exciting!