Return to search

Genetically engineering your diet? Startups tell you how to nourish based on your DNA.

You eat what you are.

That’s the thesis driving a group of startups that offer nutrition advice customized to individual consumers.

After all, nutrition is getting highly personal. Advances in DNA technology are pushing the science from broad guidelines, such as eat less meat and sugar, more fruits and vegetables, to advice tailored to your unique genetic makeup.

It’s called “precision nutrition” and it could soon revolutionize the $4 trillion global health and wellness industry.

The idea is to personalize your diet according to your genetic profile. You test your DNA and discover, say, that your body is not very good at processing fat and cholesterol, so you take extra care to avoid them in pursuit of peak health.

Until recently this would not have been feasible for anyone outside of Oprah or Warren Buffett. Back in 2001, the cost of sequencing a human genome was around $100 million. Now, anyone can get a home DNA testing kit for the price of dinner at a decent restaurant.

For around $150, a Boston startup called Orig3n offers a “genetic assessment designed to help you understand how your body responds to nutrition.” It sends you a kit with a cotton swab. You swipe your cheek and send your saliva back to Orig3n and it analyzes your DNA to discover your individual nutritional needs.

Among other tests, it examines your HDL/LDL cholesterol and lipid levels, and your monounsaturated fat and fatty acid response to learn how well your body can metabolize good or bad fats in your diet. It looks to see if you’re predisposed to any vitamin deficiencies.

Orig3n was founded in 2014 and has $35 million in total funding. It’s one of around a dozen companies that now offer a combo special of DNA test and diet advice.

For instance, another startup called Habit just raised $32 million from Campbell Soup for its at-home test kit, which makes personalized food recommendations based on an individual’s unique DNA.

“Consumers are looking to make healthier decisions with regard to their diets,” says Clay B. Thorp, general partner at Hatteras Venture Partners, which led the investment in Orig3n.

“Orig3n helps you tailor what goes into your body based on your genetic makeup. It’s bringing intelligence to the intersection of what we eat and how that impacts how we feel and how we live.”

Orig3n hopes to resonate not only with consumers but with companies that make food and supplements. Thorp says these companies are eager to use genomics to more accurately target their products to particular consumer niches.

For example, if a company sells vitamin supplements, it might offer the Orig3n test to customers as a marketing tool to show them that its vitamins can provide the customers with real benefits. Partnering with those companies to sell a white-label version of its test could open up a broader market opportunity for Orig3n.

Thorp estimates that opportunity in the billions, despite the fact that a number of prominent medical professionals have piled a heaping helping of skepticism on DNA tests like Orig3n’s.

Regardless, consumers have amply demonstrated their interest in personal genomics, as evidenced by the success of 23andMe (which recently launched its own study of the links between DNA and dieting success, with plans to provide tailored weight-loss advice).

Thorp says the nutrition space is a perfect application for genomics because the way we metabolize food is embedded in our DNA. What’s in our genes is what’s in our jeans.

One challenge he notes is the current limitations of DNA testing. It will get better and Orig3n must work to convince consumers that it is always delivering the most current information available.

Another challenge is the growing competition in the space and the difficulty each company has in differentiating itself.

Another startup offering precision nutrition, though not tailored to the genetic level, is Care/of, which delivers a monthly subscription of personalized vitamin packets based on an online questionnaire that asks you about your lifestyle, goals and values.

Founded in 2016 and based in New York, it has raised $17 million from Goodwater Capital, RRE Ventures and Tusk Ventures.

“Dietary supplements is an industry ripe for disruption,” says Jordan Nof, managing partner at Tusk Ventures. “This is a market expected to reach $220 billion in 2022, but look at the incumbents. Look at GNC. You go in, there are a ton of products but no one gives you real answers. They’re just trying to push product. I could go in and they’d be just as likely to sell me a prenatal vitamin as anything else.”

Nutrition Sector Trends VC Venture
Jordan Nof, managing partner, Tusk Ventures. Photo courtesy of the firm.

Care/of offers a bespoke solution personalized to individuals. Its brief questionnaire asks a series of questions — your sex, age, place of residence, health priorities, among other things — then recommends a vitamin pack to meet your needs.

Care/of tells you about the scientific research on the products it recommends and whether that research is very strong, strong, mixed or emerging.

Nof says that in an opaque market like nutrition, transparency is valuable and the Care/of approach connects with consumers because it provides a trustworthy personalized solution.

As for exits, he has a particular strategy in mind: a shot of vitamin A. (That’s A for Amazon.) “The obvious exit path is a pretty big company out there that just picked up a large grocery chain,” Nof says. “Care/of would fit very well with this company’s Prime business model.”

Another interesting nutrition startup is Nuritas, which is applying artificial intelligence to real foods to find ingredients that can help people with specific health needs.

The Dublin company has raised €24 million from, among others, Bono and the Edge, to fuel its quest to discover peptides in natural-food sources (rather than a chemical soup) that can be used in supplements and new drugs targeted to people with particular medical conditions.

Peptides normally are released from food by your gut bacteria. Food giants like Nestle, a Nuritas partner, would like to isolate the peptides and make them in large quantities.

Using a combination of AI and DNA analysis, Nuritas has developed and patented a number of peptides that can address conditions from inflammation to aging to diabetes.

For example, one of its peptide discoveries helps move glucose into muscles. This is useful because diabetes is associated with a slowing of glucose movement into muscle cells. Currently, there is no proven treatment for prediabetics to help prevent their progression into diabetes.

“The technology is definitely here today for us to understand at a molecular level what’s going on with what we eat,” says Nick Rosa, managing director of Cultivian Sandbox Ventures, which has invested in Nuritas.

“There are so many rumors and fad diets telling us what we should and shouldn’t put in our bodies. But if we can prove scientifically what’s good for you and what’s not — and do it on an individual level — that would be a game-changer.”

Using the Nuritas platform, food companies can discover ingredients for, say, nutrition bars or sports drinks that would help people replenish their muscles or rehydrate their bodies. These ingredients would be scientifically proven to do what they say. with no asterisks and fine print on the back label.

One exit possibility is a large food company like Nestle. Such companies are always looking for innovative ways to find interesting new food ingredients. Pharma is another possibility.

“Ninety-seven percent of our healthcare costs go to treatment and only 3 percent go to prevention,” Rosa says.

“Nutrition can be a prevention mechanism that will dramatically reduce healthcare costs if done right.”

Tom Stein is a Palo Alto, California, contributor. He can be reached at

Photo courtesy voyagerix/iStock/Getty Images.