Harnessing the Gut-Brain Axis

By Adam Goulburn

It was almost three years ago when I first walked into Prof. Charles Zuker’s office to learn where his research was taking him. I left with my head spinning. As a ‘retired’ academic who had sworn off my own research, I left ready to follow Charles back into the lab to venture into the science unknowns. Well, in all honesty that feeling lasted for only a split second…but I did walk away convinced that Lux had to start a company around Charles, his team and their work.

We’ve had many conversations since that initial one. Most were focused around the microbiome, an emerging field of science that has become my personal obsession. I have been convinced that the microbiome will fundamentally change our thinking of and ability to influence human biology. I still am. I probed and challenged, encouraging Charles that this was where we should be focusing on a new venture. His response has been seared into my brain: “Adam, I agree with you that the microbiome is a fundamental shift but everyone is missing the bigger picture…THE GUT.

I’ve written before, sometimes jokingly (we still have the domain name!) about the gut. My friends and family have had to listen to me passionately speak and geek out on its powers. But it was Charles, a master of elucidating sensation to perception, who opened my eyes. It became obvious that the gut, innervated with 300M neurons (the equivalent of 3 mouse brains!), is one half of a two-way communication highway with the brain, forming a gut-brain axis. Unfolding to be ~200–300m2 from top to bottom (after all we humans are just one long tube), the gut is our largest sensing organ. It is the outside world’s gateway to our inner systems and states. Sure the microbiome plays a role, as do the foods, drinks, drugs, vitamins, etc. that we ingest. But amazingly, up to 90% of our serotonin and 50% of our dopamine (both of which are neural communication molecules) reside in our gut. It also contains up to 400x more of the sleep-related melatonin than the region in our brain that produces it. Quite literally, the shit inside us is impacting our physiology. But it needs to get through or communicate with a gate first. And that gate is the gut, an organ that is monitoring and informing our brain about our internal physiological and metabolic states. So when Charles said: “’I have a gut feeling’”, ‘Go with your gut’, ‘I don’t feel well’, ‘I’m in a food coma’ — What if we could find a mechanism and molecule for all these behaviors?? What if we could find confidence in a pill??The team at Lux was all in.

With Charles and his two world renowned co-founders Prof. Tom Maniatis and Prof. Richard Axel, we at Lux set about incubating a company to decode the gut-brain axis and harness its potential in both the therapeutic and nutritional health settings. We hired the first nine full time employees, an amazingly talented group of scientists, technologists, and bio-hackers that joined from the likes of Google, Bloomberg and world class academic institutions like Columbia and Cornell. We found our fearless leader and hugely successful drug-hunting CEO in Nancy Thornberry, responsible for Merck’s best ever selling $6B/yr drug franchise. (As founding CEO, this of course meant I had to fire myself… alas, no severance!). Our team comes from all over the country — New York, San Francisco, New Jersey, Texas — and soon the world. We brought on a world-class Scientific Advisory Board filled with Nobel and Lasker Prize winners that believed so much in the mission that they wanted to devote time and energy to the company. We were joined by top-tier firms Polaris Partners and The Column Group to give this founding team the fuel they need to carry out their mission. With a heavy focus on single-cell sequencing and bioinformatics, one of the world’s largest sequencing companies Illumina was convinced this was a journey they had to join. And very significantly, we located the company in New York City. Starved of homegrown biotech successes and drug discovery companies, we firmly believe New York can become a biotech epicenter. There is so much latent talent and sooo much hunger to build meaningful, impactful life sciences companies in the City — we want to tap it all.

As founding CEO, it has been an incredibly rewarding and energy-sapping journey (more of that in another post). I have a renewed and refreshed respect for all the entrepreneurs in the Lux portfolio and elsewhere. But it was never “I” and always “We”. This is one of the reasons why Lux is so unique — we have the opportunity to incubate and build newcos from the ground up as a team. And we want to do it again.

So today we’re extremely proud and excited to unveil Kallyope, Inc. with the announcement of the company’s $44M Series A financing. We’re under no illusions — the real work starts now. But we’re convinced there is unlimited nutritional health and therapeutic potential in unlocking the gut-brain axis and we can’t wait to share our future progress.