Apiece Apart Woman: Ara Katz
Photos: The Ingalls
Interview: Leigh Patterson
Styling: Remy Pearce
Knowledge is power. And while we’re halfway cringing to start with a cliche Sir Francis Bacon-ism here...when considering the personal philosophy of Ara Katz it is a throughline. Ara is the co-founder of Seed, a microbiome-centered, science and data-driven organization ambitiously setting out to pioneer, in their words, ‘the inquiry, application, and communication of microbiome science to improve human and planetary health.’
On the topics of contemporary Western health and wellbeing, few topics are more talked about and (perhaps misunderstood) than ‘gut health’ and the human microbiome. And amid an industry layered in tricky language and a lack of strict regulation, Seed is an outlier: They currently offer just two products (a female and male synbiotic supplement) alongside a library’s worth of supporting source materials. (Ie: your Microbiome 101, How to Read A Label, and ‘Can’t I just eat kimchi’?) Seed’s approach feels backward in contrast to the narrative of the present-day wellness industry: Less products, more data. They lead with the fact that we are bombarded with marketing that we don’t understand...and that’s a problem.
Asking questions, distilling information, and having a generally rule-breaking attitude toward flipping the switch on the ‘old’ way of doing things is not just Seed’s M.O., it is Ara’s. Her career has spanned industries (previously she co-founded the retail-driven app Spring), but a common theme seems to be that she’s not just relentlessly curious...she also dreams up her own solutions, often answering questions that no one has yet thought to ask. A keen crafter of narrative, she’s both a brilliant storyteller and a sharp critic, the kind of person who can found a company that articulates it wants to improve ‘human and planetary health’...and you don’t roll your eyes, you listen. She strikes us as someone who could be an evil genius if she wasn’t so damn empathetic and compassionate, whose ethos is basically: Level up. Learn a lot (and keep learning). Be skeptical. And above all, do things that better us all. We’re in it together. And no...you can’t just eat kimchi.
Can you tell us about how SEED came about? What were some of the posing questions you asked? I'm curious about the genesis of both the products and how you went about assembling the community of scientists who work with you.
I trace the journey to creating Seed back to high school—my mom died of pancreatic cancer my senior year and it was my first real exposure to watching a body go from healthy to passing. There were so many more questions than answers, but it spurred a lifetime of question-asking and curiosity about our bodies, our health and the way we make choices every day.
Over two startups and a career in media and entertainment, my passion for biology and health never waned but was only amplified when I had a miscarriage. It was a revealing life checkpoint to question what I was creating, prioritizing and with whom. I resigned from my previous company the night of my procedure, got pregnant very shortly after, and very shortly after that, met my co-founder, Raja. It was with him that I found my way into and back to health. He’s an extraordinary scientific translator (both in research and in communication) and though through very different journeys, we both arrived at the microbiome and microbes as where we would focus our next years building.
For me, the journey to the microbiome was very personal. After four months of breastfeeding, I felt especially defeated when I was unable to supply all of my son’s breast milk. When I had to look for supplementation options, I couldn’t believe how little science informed the products available, especially given what we now know about an infant’s developing microbiome and the critical window of development (and the role breastmilk plays). I was so lucky to have Raja as a resource during this time. My pregnancy and breastfeeding experience, paired with Raja and my mutual fascination with the microbiome prompted the question ‘how can we set up a child for a healthy life?’. One question led to many around the possibilities of the microbiome and culminated in a shared vision to pioneer ways that microbes could impact both. We have assembled leading scientists in the field and have built a platform that translates microbial sciences into some of the most sophisticated and rigorously tested probiotics and prebiotics globally.
We also share a mission to educate, which you can see reflected in the brand and how we’re building community. We believe too many products marketed to us take advantage of what consumers don’t know or understand. This is especially true when it comes to probiotics because the term itself isn’t regulated. So we set out to reclaim probiotics for science—not only with our products, but with our communication and deep commitment to education and the translation of science. This summer, we also announced the launch of LUCA Biologics, the first biotechnology company to emerge from our Seed Health foundry. LUCA will address unmet medical needs in women’s health, including therapeutics for urinary tract infection (UTI), preterm birth (PTB), and bacterial vaginosis (BV).
The scientific lexicon can feel daunting, even though we'd like to think we understand our individual biology intuitively. What do you think are some of the most frequent gaps of knowledge or misconceptions are that people have about microbiomes and gut health?
Every day, people send us photos of probiotics, texts with Amazon links, and recommendations from their chiropractor, along with dozens of questions and misconceptions about probiotics.
‘Gut mania’ is at an all-time high. And despite the ever-increasing number of ‘probiotic’ supplements, foods, and beverages out there, there’s still a lot of confusion about what probiotics are, how they work, and why we should take them. Too often, evangelism eclipses evidence. One specific myth is the idea that probiotics ‘restore’ your gut or ‘put the good bacteria back’. This is based on a common misconception that probiotics must ‘colonize’ to “work”. It’s not true. Each time you go to the bathroom, you lose several trillion microbes (including probiotics that have completed their work in your colon), which is why continuous, daily intake is important to optimize impact.
How can female consumers who give money to the wellness industry keep themselves from falling for, as you call it, “misinformation, hyperbolic claims, and confirmation bias”?
By remembering that the act of questioning is a powerful expression of agency—and to employ the scientific method (experiment, observe, learn) without an attachment to outcome (just because you spent money on it, doesn’t mean it has to work).
What do you wish you had understood earlier in your life?
How decisions of what’s not right for you are radical acts of self-care.
When you dream of taking a soul-nourishing trip, what do you dream of?
Me, alone in nature in 70 degree weather with books, yoga, an ocean and silence.
What are some of your top of mind recent favorites:
A song Hell You Talmbout by Janelle Monae
A podcast Work in Progress with Sophia Bush
A film Trip of Compassion (on the power of psychedelics)
A book When (the science of time) by Daniel Pink
A place Anywhere in nature with my son, Pax.
A food or ingredient Pomegranate
A quote She didn’t always follow the recipe.