We are living in grim and uncertain times. A force unseen and unknown has overturned the lives of billions and disrupted global systems. Many are suffering from the severe effects of COVID-19, and the rest are living in fear. We at FORM thought about how we can best contribute to helping people be safer and healthier during the crisis. With our large network of health researchers, experts, and healthcare advisors around the world, we knew that our contribution can be found in their in-depth knowledge of various aspects of the crisis. We wish that these interview series will shed light on where we are now and where we are expected to head in the future. We also want to share our experts’ knowledge with you so you and your family stay safe and healthy during these difficult times. To end on a timely quote from Plato before we jump into our first interview: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
Philipp Schulte is a Zurich-based entrepreneur with ten years of experience in the medtech startup world. He is the CEO of BAZE, which he launched in 2014 with co-founder Isam Haddad to make personalized nutrition accessible and convenient. Markus Okumus, Founding Partner of FORM, talked to Philipp recently to ask about how personalized nutrition and the democratization of blood testing can serve as potential solutions for the COVID-19 crisis. We thank Philipp for being our first guest in our COVID-19 interview series with leading healthcare experts and advisors.
Markus: Philipp, thanks for joining us today. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Philipp: Thank you for having me Markus. My name is Philipp, and I’m the co-founder and CEO of Baze. We launched BAZE in 2014 to bring personalized nutrition into the mainstream. In my private life, I’m a father of two and live in Zurich. Like the rest of the world, we’re currently in shutdown here. It’s obviously a very interesting situation right now, for lack of a better word.
Markus: Interesting indeed. What measures have you personally taken to protect yourself and your family during these tough times?
Philipp: Well, first of all, we definitely went into COVID self-isolation about two weeks ago. I think that’s really the first and foremost thing we all should be doing - strict self-isolation to flatten the curve. And then, obviously, we follow all the standard recommendations. We wash our hands more than usual and make sure that our immune system is up and running. And that means good food, but also some supplements, which is a topic very much close to my heart since I’ve been working on offering personalized nutrition to people for years now. Also, my family and I have taken supplements as far back as I can remember. But especially in the current situation,
Markus: Well, other than having to live in isolation, what about the current crisis worries you the most?
Philipp: That we fail to control the current crisis in the way we need to, and as a result, that we don’t get out of it as quickly as possible. It’s obvious that we need to act now and flatten the curve. But we also need to return to some form of normal life sooner rather than later, because the consequences on a social and economic level are unprecedented. So the earlier we address the damage that’s already been done when we return to normal life, the better.
Markus: Good point. And what gives you hope that we will get out of this crisis and bring things back on track?
Philipp: Well, I’ve personally never seen a time such as today where people really pull together and think hard about how to overcome a crisis individually but also collectively. It’s tremendously inspiring to see how everyone wants to step up and think about how they can contribute to overcoming the crisis. It’s crucial for us to better understand the black box that we’re currently facing. How far has the virus spread, how quickly is it spreading, who’s already immune, etc? These are some of the pressing questions we need data-driven, high-confidence answers to right now. I personally think that testing is extremely important, and we at BAZE are trying to contribute there as well. But there’s so many other things that need to be done too. Ultimately, it’s just amazing to see the number of people pulling together to solve the crisis.
Markus: From a preventive health perspective, what can people do to improve their chances of minimizing the effects of such viruses, which are sure to appear again in the future?
Philipp: Well, there’s two obvious levels of prevention. First, doing your best to avoid becoming infected. And second, if you do become infected, making sure you do your best to face it. With respect to the first, we’ve already talked about the important measures recommended by the WHO and experts across the world. There’s no question about the significance of this first level of prevention. But equally important is strengthening your body’s defenses, i.e. your immune system, to confront infections when they come. It’s interesting that 9 out of 10 people contracting the virus do not experience severe symptoms. Well, what is it that determines that difference? It’s very likely the state of the immune system and existing comorbidities. If you become infected in the presence of certain diseases, there’s sadly not much you can do other than seek medical care if symptoms become severe. But others can certainly take better care for their immune systems to face such infections. Part of it is definitely in our hands, especially for people who are generally healthy.
Markus: As an expert in personalized nutrition, what role do you believe optimal nutrition and personalized supplementation can play in mitigating the health risks associated with viral infections? Do they have any role to play at all?
Philipp: Well, the food we consume has such a big impact on our health functions, especially our immunity. There’s very good evidence that Vitamin C, Zinc, Vitamin D, Omega play tremendous roles in building strong immune systems. But it’s very important to note that nutrients need to be taken in their right amounts , that you don’t undershoot or overshoot your body’s optimal values . So clearly, ensuring the right nutrition and nutrients is key to building a healthier immune system that in turn contributes to protection against infections.
Markus: Blood sampling and analysis plays a big role in your work on personalized nutrition. From a broader societal standpoint, what are the potential health benefits of democratizing blood sampling and analysis by making it easily available to end users? Can it be a big first step for more people to build better immune systems in the long run?
Philipp: Clearly so. Let me mention the short-term answer first, which is that blood testing is a key missing piece in solving the COVID-19 puzzle as well as future pandemics. Making blood testing easier and more convenient is paramount to have as wide-spread COVID-19 immunity testing as possible. And we at BAZE believe that at-home testing is the best way to do that. But there’s a longer-term answer to your question. On average, about 70% of all health and disease decisions taken in the healthcare setting relies on blood tests, because they’re a window into the state of your body and health. Blood tests indicate that there may be problems lurking around which you might not be “feeling” in that moment. So it’s crucial to make it easy to look into your body through that window and take a data-driven, personalized approach to understanding what potential issues you might have and treat them preventively. And this is clearly our mission at BAZE, to make it as easy as possible for people to take action based on what they see in their blood, be it through personalized nutrition now and soon enough through other measures to prevent disease and optimize health.
Markus: With respect to the COVID-19 crisis, I know that you’re working on some potential pilots to test for immunity against the virus. Can you say a few words about that?
Philipp: Right. Well, we think this is huge. Because what’s crucial for us as a society is to understand at which level of the pandemic we are right now. We all know that there’s this big black box, a big number of people who had the virus but may not have even noticed it or only had slight symptoms with no confirmation that they had it. This number is super important for health authorities to understand where we are in this part of the pandemic. Secondly, it’s important for people and the institutions they work with. For example, I might have had the virus and be immune to it. If I’m a healthcare worker, then I can simply go to the hospital to help those in need, or go see my parents and bring them groceries. There’s even a third point to be made here. The only very well-validated therapy against this virus is convalescent plasma therapy, which basically consists of taking antibodies from those who’ve had the virus and giving them to critically ill patients. So now if I know that I have the virus, I can go to those companies who do the therapy and donate my blood to help patients. So it’s extremely helpful to know what your immune status is, and we’re currently in the process of creating a solution that offers you that immune system test in the safety of your own home. In a shutdown society, that makes a lot of sense, because you can do the test while continuing to protect yourself and others against infections. So we hope that this project can really help contribute to solving the current crisis.
Markus: Philipp, you’ve been very active as a company founder and CEO for more than 5 years now. How is the current crisis impacting the startup world both in the EU and the US? And will there be a bright light at the end of the tunnel for startups once the crisis is over?
Philipp: It’s definitely a major disruption in the short term. In the long run, I think it can have a beneficial impact, in the sense that people are seeing that they can work together to solve major issues. That’s at least my perspective. For health technologies and innovations, it will certainly have a positive impact, because there will be an increasing awareness that you need to know your health status and that there are solutions out there to help you figure it out yourself. But first we need to overcome the short-term negative impact that we unfortunately can’t avoid right now.