Researchers at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle developed a way to test for microbiome diversity from a blood sample. (Artist rendering courtesy of ISB) If you want to know what’s going on in your gut microbiome, the community of bacteria in our intestines that are tied to overall health, there are plenty of companies willing to help. You just have to pay them — and send in a poop sample. But it turns out that bottling feces isn’t the only way to gain insights into the gut. Researchers at the (ISB) in Seattle have devised a new way to look into the state of your microbiome with a blood test. Microbiome startups have proliferated in recent years. Some are going after drug discovery for specific diseases, such as Finch Therapeutics and Maat Pharma. Others, including Seattle-based , are selling microbiome insights directly to consumers for overall health. Given the relatively early stage of microbiome research, how useful insights from the gut can be. That’s why ISB researchers decided to focus on the diversity of microbes. “There’s not a good correlation between diversity in and of itself and clinical health. But there are specific cases in which it does seem to be a huge risk factor,” said, who worked with on the study, which was published today in Nature Biotechnology. Low microbiome diversity is a strong risk factor for patients with recurring Clostridium difficile (C. diff), Gibbons said. C. diff is a potentially life-threatening bacterium that comes back in nearly a third of patients following antibiotic treatment. ISB researchers Dr. Nathan Price and Dr. Sean Gibbons. (ISB Photos) “Getting these recurrent infections is super hard on patients,” Gibbons said. “If you could avoid that cycle, you could not only decrease the cost of healthcare, you would actually be saving lives and producing a lot less suffering.” Patients with C. diff can be treated with a fecal transplant, but those are only administered after antibiotics have failed. Gibbons thinks that a blood test could pre-screen patients at risk of recurring C. diff and avoid the painful cycle. Related: To create the test, researchers leaned heavily on data compiled by Arivale, a Seattle startup that aimed to help people become healthier and avoid disease through wellness. in April after it failed to find a market for its pricey service. But Dr. Lee Hood, who co-founded both Arivale and ISB, rescued much of the data and technology from the startup and brought it to ISB. That resource gave Price and Gibbons extensive data on hundreds of former Arivale customers who had their microbiomes sequenced and their blood tested, among other tests. The researchers were able to train a model to predict which individuals are likely to have very low microbiome diversity by looking at 11 blood metabolites. Arivale customers gave permission for their data to be used for research, and the information was anonymized. The ISB study is a “beautiful example” of how personal data clouds can give new insights into biology and disease, Hood told GeekWire in an email. They also found what they believe to be a “Goldilocks zone” of gut diversity. People with low diversity tended to have diarrhea and inflammation, whereas those with very high diversity tended to be constipated or have toxins in the blood. With the help of Arivale’s data, ISB researchers think more microbiome-related insights can be found. “We’re trying to build a real map that can lead to actionable insights of how to manipulate the microbiome,” Gibbons said. One disadvantage of the dataset is that it skewed toward white, health-conscious people, who were more likely to be Arivale’s customers. “It is a bit of a biased sampling,” said Gibbons. In the future, ISB intends to partner with Providence St. Joseph Health, which would give researchers access to a more representative population.
Tech leaders Gillian Muessig, Kelly Wright, Lisa Hammitt, and Jennifer Savage discuss barriers and opportunities for women in venture-backed startups. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg) in leadership is often cited as a driving factor behind the broader tech industry’s gender balance issues. The theory? If more women sat on corporate boards and wrote the checks, then more women would feel comfortable entering male-dominated fields and more female entrepreneurs would get funded. But even though there is a growing body of research to show that increasing women in leadership roles makes good business sense, the market is not correcting itself, at least not very quickly. That begs the question, should regulators step in? It’s a question that was raised Thursday during an event in Seattle that brought together women venture capitalists and executives to discuss opportunities and barriers in the venture capital world. Create33, under the umbrella of Madrona Venture Group, hosted the event. Create33 Director Rebecca Lovell moderated a discussion with Lisa Hammit, vice president of data and artificial intelligence at Visa; Gillian Muessig, general partner at Outlines Venture Group; Jennifer Savage, Partner at Illuminate Ventures, and Kelly Wright, board director at Amperity, Even, and Fastly. Tech leaders Rebecca Lovell, Gillian Muessig, Kelly Wright, Lisa Hammitt, and Jennifer Savage discuss barriers and opportunities for women in venture-backed startups. Reports from and the indicate that companies with at least one woman founder yield better results for venture capital firms, though when measuring by metrics like valuations. Researchers at the discovered female-founded companies generate more revenue than startups that only have men on their founding teams. In February, the (CAE) published a study asserting that women-founded companies perform at least as well as startups founded by men. But despite this track record, women-founded companies accounted for just 16 percent of first venture capital financings between 2005-2017, according to the CAE study. This year, researchers found 63 percent of startups have no women on their board of directors and 47 percent have no women in leadership. Regulators are starting to zero in on the slow progress toward gender parity across the tech industry — from startups to big public corporations. The question of whether government should regulate diversity in tech is more than theoretical in California. In September, California enacted a landmark law that requires public companies domiciled in the state to have at least one woman director by 2019 and larger corporations will need to have three women on the board by 2021. “Given all the special privileges that corporations have enjoyed for so long, it’s high time corporate boards include people who constitute more than half of the ‘persons’ in America,” former California Gov. Jerry Brown wrote in his to the California State Senate. New Jersey and Massachusetts . Legislators in Washington state, the West Coast’s other big tech hub, aren’t formally pursuing a board diversity law though that could change if the idea picks up steam. States are in a handful of European countries that require corporate boards to have women directors. A from 2016 found “evidence that firms with a larger fraction of female directors on their board have greater dividend payouts.” But the tech leaders on the Create33 panel and other female board members GeekWire interviewed have mixed feelings about regulators mandating diversity quotas. Muessig, who co-founded Moz and a venture fund that backs women-led startups, wondered if it was “thin thinking” to force this type of regulation companies. “Government does this so often,” she said. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to something that didn’t really solve the problem. I’m not against the idea … but I haven’t dug in deeply enough to say, is that really going to be the root of the problem or not?” Flying Fish Partners co-founder Heather Redman is concerned that the narrow focus on corporate boards could actually hurt efforts to increase representation of women in other tech leadership roles. “The data, so far, on how well the regulation works is kind of mixed,” she said in an interview with GeekWire. “One of the phenomenons that I’ve noticed is that we’re already seeing a lot of women retiring early from C-suite jobs instead of becoming CEO. The board path is becoming the easier path.” Redman added, “If I had to pick where I would want to see women be, I would pick CEO all day long … the board does not have its fingers on the knobs.” Several executives expressed a begrudging acceptance of the mandate’s necessity. “Frankly, I was disappointed that it had to be mandated,” said Nicole Piasecki, a Seattle executive who sits on several board seats, including Weyerhaeuser, in an interview with GeekWire. “I understand why it was mandated because progress wasn’t occurring.” California’s law will open up 692 board seats to women by 2021, . If the rest of the nation followed California’s lead, it would amount to more than 3,000 board seats available to women, nearly a 75 percent increase. During Thursday’s panel, Wright said that California’s board law is moving the needle. The former longtime Tableau executive noted that without a legal requirement, California’s big corporations were not making much progress on gender diversity among directors. She explained that California’s law actually started as a recommendation from the government, not a mandate. “Unfortunately, over time, nothing happened,” she said. “There was no change.” From Wright’s perspective, the power of California’s law — which governs some of the most powerful tech companies in the world — is the impact it’s having beyond the state’s borders. Seattle-based Amazon, for example, added to its board in February; it now has six men and five women on . “It’s at least raised the conversation to the point where now people are actually looking at the data and looking at the facts, and we are starting to see some positive progress,” Wright said.