As a professor at University of California, Davis in the Departments of Food Science & Technology and Viticulture & Enology, Dr. David Mills is a seasoned academic — but he is no stranger to the startup world: Mills has helped found two food-related startups — Evolve Biosystems and MicroTrek — based on research conducted in his academic positions.
Between working with students and business partners, learning the ropes of the startup world, and working to resolve issues affecting premature infants and food and beverage production companies (respectively) at his two companies, Mills certainly has a lot on his plate. But somehow, he manages to balance it all and unearth some valuable lessons — on networking, leadership and the future of food — along the way. Mills’ work as an educator doesn’t end in the classroom; when we spoke with him, he passed on some of these lessons and more — including the key factor that got one of his startups off the ground.
At Evolve Biosystems, you work to provide premature infants with probiotics that they lack. What was the impetus for founding the company, and why did you decide to work on an issue that affects premature infants specifically?
We realized the only way they would get this was to start a company so we could get this inside the neonatal intensive care units, because we know this will make a difference. It started with trying to understand milk.
Over 13 years ago we decided to focus on milk as the perfect food since it evolved in concert with humans (for over 200 million years) to provide nutrition, protection and make them healthier. We discovered that milk contains components (complex sugars) that selectively feed very target microbes (Bifidobacterium species) that become enriched in breast-fed infants. We learned that premies do not have the normal breast fed microbes (i.e. Bifidobacterium) but do have a collection of not-so-good clades of microbes. Moreover, premies are at risk for nectrotizing enterocolitis which is when the not-so-good bugs turn very bad and start destroying part of the premie’s intestines, often leading to death. We tried feeding breastmilk-fed premies the Bifidobacterium (one called B. infantis) and it colonized their intestines well (protectively). We learned that B. infantis is not a probiotic that larger probiotic companies like to sell (I guess it is hard to make correctly), plus the premie market is pretty small for big companies wanting to sell to millions of adults. So we decided to start a company.
We have subsequently learned that the good Bifidobacterium species are not always present in infants from western countries but they are prevalent in kids from the developing world. We wonder if that has to do with how clean an environment we live in but don’t know. Either way it suggests that healthy kids in Western countries, not just premies, might need this B. infantis during breast feeding too. We don’t know for sure, but we take showers every day and give birth in very sterile environments. Perhaps the evolutionary process of transferring microbes from mom to baby has just been blocked a bit.
What challenges did you encounter in the company’s early stages?
The initial challenge when you get a group of professors together who think they should start a company is that no one knows what they’re doing. At Evolve, we floundered for the first year or so. Once we managed to recruit a talented CEO, everything changed.
With Microtrek, you help food and beverage production companies understand good and bad systems of microbes in their processing plants. How are microbes involved in these kinds of production, and why are they important?
In any food processing setting — places that produce wine, dairy and sake, for example — there are microbes everywhere. They’re an inherent part of the fermentation process of making the actual product. We are also mapping how these microbes move through food facilities — like wineries — by swabbing surfaces.
We were doing this academically and more and more companies I talked to wanted this as a service but they didn’t want this done as an academic project (with me publishing the result). That was when we realized we should start a company so we could get companies this information.
So if they wanted that information internally, it must have been important to them and their businesses. Why were these discoveries so significant?
These companies want to know where good and bad microbes are — the bad being the spoilage microbes that interfere with production of a flavorful product. They want to understand what a good pattern of microbes in their facility looks like, because knowing that is a form of a quality control check on their systems. With these new tools in hand, you can imagine a future where a plant manager of a huge yogurt facility gets a weekly map of where problem microbes are showing up, and on these spots you might do extra cleaning to prevent future spoilage and potential recalls.
Given that we hear so much about how the quality of our gut bacteria/microbes is linked to our diets, what should people be making sure they eat?
I think people should be eating a varied diet with lots of vegetables, and sprinkled heavily with lots of fermented foods [like sauerkraut, yogurt, fermented cabbage and kimchi]. We don’t eat enough vegetables. A lot less processed foods and a lot more fermented foods bring in a whole lot of healthful microbes, and — in moderation, of course — fermented beverages can do that as well. We should constantly be passing those fermented organisms through us. I think nature intended that, but we just don’t do it.
Are there any challenges to being both a professor and an entrepreneur?
The most surprising challenge is the need to truly understand the difference between a discovery and an invention that has patentable/commercial value. It is funny…in the lab, we have made discoveries that we get so excited about and believe are going to transform the field. However, when I talk to the businessmen associated with our startups, they gently walk me through how our discovery is indeed a discovery, but not an invention with commercial value. I’m getting better, but this is something university faculty need mentoring on.
How do you think the food industry is going to evolve?
The future is going to be about the integration of biology into our concepts of food. Understanding how foods — particularly whole foods — interface with gut microbes is a huge new target for the food industry. If we can understand molecular interfaces of food structures and gut microbes, we can start to pick apart specific routes to health. I think the regimented USDA diet that everyone’s supposed to eat is going to go by the wayside because everyone’s going to have a personalized agenda above the minimal necessary nutrients. They designed those old dietary guidelines by the largest swath of people possible, and people are different.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those looking to embark on food-science related careers?
The opportunity to change human health in the next fifty years through food science and diet modulation as opposed to the traditional drug model is tremendous. What we need are passionate, articulate, visionary scientists and new startups to help make paradigm-shifting, disruptive discoveries to really change things and get healthier foods into people. Drug companies make drugs like statins which lower cholesterol, however the right foods (i.e. diet) does the same. Food is a lot cheaper and so the societal cost is much lower. The drug industry does lots of good too! But where food can cure disease we should try to advance that.
And networking is key. We found the right CEO [for Evolve] and it just made everything happen. Without that CEO, we wouldn’t have a company.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
As a professor, it’s watching students’ careers flourish. At the end of the day publishing another paper for me doesn’t make any difference, but helping people set themselves up to succeed is the most gratifying thing. And when you’re a professor, you get to discover stuff. For those of us who are discovery junkies, there’s nothing as exciting.
As an entrepreneur, I think my proudest moment will be later on this month, when Evolve has its open house on the incubator site that we hope to get a bunch of people in by Christmas, because ultimately it’s going to help us get a product out that’s going to make a difference in the NICU. The main overriding passion that we all share is that we know that this is going to make a difference in the lives of premies. It really has to do with the passion of wanting to change human health.
Mills received his Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Minnesota in 1995. In 2010, he was awarded the Cargill Flavor Systems Specialties Award from the American Dairy Science Association, and in 2012, he was named the Peter J. Shields Chair in Dairy Food Science. In 2015 he was elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Microbiology.
The Reserve Editorial Team