George Hadjigeorgiou is Co-founder and President at ZOE, the health science company on a mission to help people eat with confidence. Like many innovators in the healthcare space, George’s inspiration for ZOE, which means ‘life’ in his native Greek, stems from a deep passion for the topic at hand. He talks to Jonathan Bryant, Partner at Erevena about how they have recently used their experience and pivoted the business to provide a tracking app in response to Covid-19.
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
I left Greece when I was 17 to study in the US and after a number of failed attempts studied Mechanical Engineering at Tufts and MIT.
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?
ZOE arose from a common passion and belief with my 2 co-founders Tim Spector and Jonathan Wolf, that the food we eat is the best medicine that we can take. The messages we all hear about food are very conflicting and confusing and we believe that people have the right to make their own choices but need the data to base these choices on. Embedded in our values is the ability to give people the means to understand their body and health, regardless of background, affiliation or gender. This was fundamental to our story from the beginning.
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 apply machine learning to the data that we collect to predict how people will respond to food and therefore allow them to make informed decisions, choosing the food that will lower dietary inflammation, improve their microbiome and allow them to stay healthy.
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?
On the 19th of March our business changed more rapidly than you can ever imagine! Our co-founder Tim Spector had the idea of studying the progression and symptoms of COVID in the twins’ study he runs and asked us to develop an app; we thought, that this could also be useful for everyone so that we can track the progression of symptoms and the spread of Covid-19. We decided to put a small team on the project and the Covid-19 Symptom Study app was developed over one weekend and very quickly went viral, way beyond the twins’ group.
“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!
The app is powered by ZOE, and users self-report Covid-19 symptoms daily with all the data being analysed with King’s College London and then shared anonymously with all the key policy makers in the NHS and government. It is supported by all the major medical governing bodies and UK charities. The aim is to help slow the outbreak by helping researchers to identify how fast the virus is spreading in different areas; identify high risk areas; and predict who is most at risk due to our very large dataset of symptoms and how they link to COVID. This allows us to identify people with symptoms in the first 48 hours and send them to be tested, and therefore isolate earlier and reduce the transmission.
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?
The second angle is around helping at an individual level by informing the public through the website and the app about what’s happening with Covid-19 in their particular country and region, and how the R rate is progressing based on the real-time symptoms data that we are collecting. This will help people to be better informed and to take better decisions and precautions, and as a result will slow down the outbreak and help save lives.
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?
Yes, the Covid-19 Symptom Study app has been a distraction to our business, but it’s also been a very energising and motivating experience to try and do good that speaks tons about our values as a company. It has also turned the entire company into better entrepreneurs and leaders and demonstrated to everyone new ways to work better for impact. The team has done an amazing job working remotely and we are all more efficient and effective than before in both our COVID and Nutrition streams of work. As a result, we have been able to also push forward with our plans without delays on the ZOE nutrition product. We know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint and I have been encouraging people to take holiday to avoid burn out.
“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.
Erevena’s Changing the Face of Health interview series profiles CEOs, founders and investors who are changing the world though the use of technology in healthcare. Jonathan Bryant is a Partner at Erevena, an Executive Search firm focused on high growth and transformation. Erevena’s clients are amongst the fastest growing companies in the world: they are VC & growth equity backed; they are publicly traded & privately held companies transforming to grow. Jonathan delivers searches across the health tech sector, mainly focused on B2C and B2B2C companies with a focus on C-level hiring for general management, product, sales and marketing leadership positions as well as regional general management.