ZOE are a team of 50 based in Boston and London, backed by VC funds & angel investors, including entrepreneurs who have built multi-billion-dollar technology companies.
Tell us a bit more about yourself
My career over the last 20 years can be divided into 3 distinct phases: strategy consulting at Accenture; followed by 5 years at Yahoo where I met Jonathan Wolf, my current co-founder; I then moved into starting and building companies. I was CEO of HouseTrip, an early leader in online bookings which was acquired by TripAdvisor, and Co-founder of efood, one of the leading food delivery platforms in Europe which was sold to Delivery Hero in 2015.
How did the inspiration for ZOE come about?
The three of us have had to make changes to the way that we eat to improve our health and along the way we’ve all asked the same questions: in a world of fad diets and conflicting nutritional advice, how do I know what’s right for me?
In search of answers, Tim turned to his own research – a ground- breaking 25-year study of 14,000 twins investigating how genes, lifestyle and gut bacteria (microbiome) affect how people break down and use food. He was surprised to find that even identical twins, who share all their genes and most of their environment, have very different taste preferences and nutritional responses to the same foods.
So, there is no one right way to eat – the key lies in understanding how your body responds to food and eating in a way that suits you best.
ZOE was born by combining Tim’s scientific knowledge with Jonathan and my expertise in machine learning and business. To be able to use AI to predict our individual responses to food, we had to first start with collecting the data. So, we teamed up with some of the leading scientists in the world from academic institutions like King’s College London, Stanford University and Harvard, and conducted the largest personalization nutrition study in the world, collecting millions of data points about individual biological responses to food.
This has been a landmark research study and the findings were recently published in Nature Medicine, showing that our responses to food are indeed unique, even for identical twins, and only 40% of our unique responses are explained by what we eat.
Using this wealth of data and by applying AI we have developed a consumer product that provides clarity and confidence about how best to eat that is tailored to each individual user.
“ZOE is all about health equity for everyone.”
How do you provide a commercial product from this?
We are planning to start selling our first home test product later this summer. This consists of a test to understand your responses to food, your metabolic and gut health and a personalized programme and app to help you reduce dietary inflammation and hit your healthiest weight.
We are able to provide you with personalized answers because we can apply AI and predict how you metabolise any food by comparing your answers with the rich data that we already have on thousands of study participants.
At the same time your information is anonymously shared with the scientists involved to help advance nutrition science for yourself and others. This also allows us to advance scientific research into the links between human metabolism and long-term health and weight which will benefit all our members.
What was the impact of Covid-19 on your business?
“What started as a hackathon, grew virally. It was the right proposition at the right time.”
We quickly gained more than one million users of the app, and over 10 weeks this has grown to just under 4 million across the UK, USA and Sweden. At one stage it was one of the top 5 downloaded apps in the App Store!
We are already working with the Department of Health and Social Care and automatically inviting five to ten thousand people every day to be tested based upon their symptoms reported on the app.
This is extremely important as with even larger adoption of our app, we can significantly close the gap of the two thirds of new infections not being caught today and be a scalable and fast way to get even more people with symptoms into the physical testing and tracing infrastructure much earlier.
“The app is the best current source of data on COVID and this interface with public policy allows the government to plan better, make better decisions and allocate resources more efficiently and save lives.”
In terms of symptoms, we have already had a significant breakthrough which we also published in Nature Medicine, showing that one of the key symptoms of Covid-19 was anosmia, the loss of smell and taste, and subsequently this has been added to the government list of symptoms to self-isolate with.
What about at an individual level?
I think there is also an opportunity, always in conjunction with the government, to educate the public fully on COVID symptoms beyond the three classic symptoms that often don’t surface until days three or four of the virus. If we could educate the public to detect earlier symptoms such as rashes, muscle pains, fatigue, diarrhoea, and headache we can test, diagnose, and self-isolate sooner, and radically reduce the number of other people infected.
We’re continually looking to improve the work that we’re doing with King’s College to help both policy makers and individuals.
“We keep trying to improve to help to save lives”
How do you keep focused on your core business at the same time as the Covid-19 tracker is taking off?
“Scarcity brings clarity”
For the time being we’ll continue with the COVID Symptom Study app as we think it can benefit the country by getting more people tested, decreasing the R, saving lives and helping to restart the economy. We’re very privileged that the community of users have donated to keep the study alive, so we’re able to continue to run the Covid-19 Symptom Study app pro bono.
What’s next for the ZOE app?
We are planning to start selling our home test product by the end of the summer, starting with the US. We are now accepting people to sign up to our waitlist and the key challenge, and our laser-focus moving forward is to ensure product-market-fit.
What keeps you going through these busy times?
Loving what I do and even more importantly the people I work with. The biggest delight is that we all love what we do, have tons of fun doing it and we’re very lucky to have some amazing people working with us.
“I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with talented people who I love to hang out with.”
The thing that I’ve learnt that’s important is that every failure, every obstacle or mistake is a learning opportunity and if you approach it with a learning mind set you grow and just get better and better.