New Ventures in the Microbiome

The human body harbors up to 100 trillion microbial organisms throughout the gut, skin, oral cavity, respiratory system and urogenital tract, among other organs and systems.

Collectively these micro-organisms are known as the microbiota, and the sum of all of their genomes is known as the human microbiome.1 These organisms play an important role in human health, including metabolism and immunity, and are implemented in the gut-brain axis where the central nervous system communicates with the gastrointestinal tract.2 Disruption in the microbiome can lead to disease, and has been linked to depression, asthma, psoriasis, and even cardiovascular disease.3 Therefore, knowledge and manipulation of human microbiota presents a great potential for the development of therapeutics to treat a wide range of diseases and ailments.4 The 2008 Human Microbiome Project launched by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) caused a significant uptick in research, which stirred the pharmaceutical industry’s interest in the field. This opened the market for three distinct types of companies and start-ups: (1) therapeutics-based companies focused on development of microbiome products, including devices, drugs, probiotics, and prebiotics; (2) research-based companies that amass knowledge and data for potential partnerships with pharmaceutical firms; and (3) direct-to-consumer service providers that offer microbiome sequencing.

State of the Market

Few therapeutic products exist today that take advantage of the considerable research that has come about in the wake of the Human Microbiome Project. Nonetheless, there has been significant investment.5 This year, in particular, has seen marked increases in funding for microbiome companies and start-ups. A good example of this increased funding is Second Genome, a company that set out to develop therapies for microbiome-related diseases. As of 2016 alone, Pfizer, Roche and others have invested over $42.6 million (a majority of $59 million total the company has raised since its inception in 2010).6 Venture-capital investment in microbiome companies has grown faster than other areas of investment by venture capital firms. According to the Wall Street Journal, “From 2011 through 2015, venture funding in microbiome firms soared 458.5% to $114.5 million, while overall venture investment grew 103.4% to $75.29 billion. This year, microbiome investment has surged again despite a decline in overall venture funding. The $616.9 million raised for microbiome companies to date so far in 2016 is more than all of the venture investment in the microbiome space in 2011 through 2015 combined.”5


What’s Being Done in the Industry

Microbiome companies and start-ups offer a wide array of products and services. They can be roughly grouped into therapeutics-based companies, research-based companies, and direct-to-consumer service providers. In terms of the first group, biotherapeutic firms have begun to use the microbiota to influence the cancer microenvironment, modulating immune responses. Furthermore, therapeutics that adjust microbiota colony populations have shown promise at enhancing remedial effects in patients suffering from gastrointestinal and other ailments and diseases, either through probiotics (delivering microbes via capsules, pills or suppositories) or prebiotics (substances that promote growth of certain type of microbes). There are also ventures that use synthetic biology to program bacteria for smart drug-delivery systems.6

Alternatively, an entire sector is focused on microbiome research. These companies strive to understand the multifarious interactions between different microbial populations, the connections between the microbiome and diseases, and to use these findings to develop new technologies. Much in the business paradigm of 23andMe, several companies are focused on bringing DNA microbiome sequencing to individual clients in order to illuminate imbalances in their personal microbiomes.5 Many of these same companies — again, very much in the 23andMe business model — are amassing knowledge and data about the microbiome in order to partner with pharmaceutical firms interested in pursuing some of the aforementioned therapeutics.7


Predictions look bright for the microbiome market, in part due to the advancements made by companies in the development of microbiome-based therapeutics, devices, technologies, research and services. So much so that established pharmaceutical companies are increasing their focus on microbiome research and development.8 Powered by advancements in synthetic biology and microbial ecology, microbiome-based therapeutics are progressing towards the clinical setting.2 The global microbiome market is expected to reach $658 million by 2023, at a compound annual growth rate of 22.3% during the 2019–2023 period.9


  1. Ursell, Luke K., Jessica L Metcalf, Laura Wegener Parfrey, Rob Knight. “Defining the Human Microbiome.” Nutrition Reviews 70.1 (2012). Web.
  2. Mimee, Mark, Robert J. Citorik, Timothy K. Lu. “Microbiome Therapeutics — Advances and Challenges.” Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 105 (2016): 44-54. Web.
  3. Cho, Ilseung, Martin J. Blaser. “The Human Microbiome: At the Interface of Health and Disease.” Nature reviews Genetics 13.4 (2012): 260–270. Web.
  4. “About the HMP.” NIH Human Microbiome Project. Web.
  5. Gormley, Brian. “Microbiome Companies Attract Big Investments.” The Wall Street Journal. 18 Sept. 2016. Web.
  6. Timmerman, Luke. “Pfizer, Roche Embrace The Microbiome, Leading $43M Bet On Second Genome.” Forbes Magazine. 20 Apr. 2016. Web.
  7. Herper, Matthew. “Surprise! With $60 Million Genentech Deal, 23andMe Has A Business Plan.” Forbes Magazine. Jan. 2015. Web.
  8. Loftus, Peter. “Merck Cutting Drug Research Jobs at Three East-Coast Sites.” The Wall Street Journal. 12 Jul. 2016. Web.
  9. Human Microbiome Market worth 658 Million USD by 2023. Markets and Markets. Web.


Emilie Branch

Emilie is responsible for strategic content development based on scientific areas of specialty for Nice Insight research articles and for assisting client content development across a range of industry channels. Prior to joining Nice Insight, Emilie worked at a strategy-based consulting firm focused on consumer ethnographic research. She also has experience as a contributing editor, and has worked as a freelance writer for a host of news and trends-related publications