“Holy sh*t!” Naveen said excitedly, after Guru told him he was looking for his next big project. Turns out, Naveen’s response was a bit of funny foreshadowing. This serendipitous phone call was the beginning of a series of events that resulted in Guru Banavar – a former Chief Technology Officer at IBM – joining the team at Viome.
Today, Viome’s market leading product uses a stool sample to sequence and analyze the genes of a person's most important and accessible ‘organ’ – the gut microbiome. Combining metatranscriptomic technology and artificial intelligence, Viome delivers personalized nutrition advice aimed at increasing microbial diversity and balance – a key pillar of health.
While working at IBM in 2016, Guru made a personal decision to move into the next chapter of his life. He wanted to apply his specialized skills and expertise to health, a personal interest of his. Specifically, he wanted to work on chronic disease.
Guruduth Banavar is now the Chief Technology Officer at Viome and we are honored to have him. Before he came to Viome, Guru was leading the team that created IBM Watson – a gold standard in artificial intelligence.
Guru is the perfect addition to Viome’s world class team. Not only does he bring his rare expertise to the mission, he has his personal passion for ending chronic illness fueling his work.
The combination of expertise and passion is what makes the Viome team so inspiring!
We think the world of our team. Now that we’ve gotten a bit of bragging out of the way, let’s hear from Guru himself, so you can get to know him a little better.
Guru Tells His Story – Artificial Intelligence for a Brighter Future
Throughout my life I’ve always been drawn to challenging problems. I enjoy their intricacy, their mystery, and even their frustrations. There’s almost no better feeling than seeing something that was once mind boggling become demystified – for me, unraveling data is beautiful, especially when it helps build systems that solve our most daunting issues.
As a lover of complex systems, I am in awe of the human mind and body. We have made a lot of progress in the last decade with augmenting the human capacity for complex thought with artificial intelligence. I’m excited that we can now harness this technology to more quickly reveal patterns and discover truths about human biology – so we may find better solutions faster.
I believe chronic disease is the biggest health issue of our time. It’s unbelievable that 50% of humanity has been afflicted with some chronic condition. I’ve always been drawn to the big issues and I see chronic illness as my why – my reason for putting in the work to hopefully leave this world a bit better than I found it.
Like so many others, my close family has been affected by chronic illness. During her high school years, my daughter was suddenly missing many classes due to her unrelenting and perplexing symptoms. Fatigue, allergies, flu-like symptoms, food sensitivities, and migraines... we still don’t know quite what the issue is; we’ve seen lots of doctors, but her symptoms are so constant and multi-system that it remains a mystery. I even graphed how much school she was missing over four years due to illness and it was heartbreaking. But I’m hoping to find the root cause through our work at Viome.
I’ve always asked far too many questions, which can aggravate some but fortunately charmed my wife. Though I always sat at the back of the class, I caught her eye in our artificial intelligence class in grad school – well, mostly because she had to constantly turn her head around to hear my never-ending questions. Fortunately for me, my wife finds my inquisitive nature endearing and has always encouraged me to dream big. And we both are looking to Viome to help us understand the Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP) that hit her last year and landed her in the emergency room 4 times!
When I realized computers would solve our most complex problems...
I was fortunate to grow up at a time when computers were just becoming a thing. I was building computers in my garage and experimenting with programming during my teenage years. This opened my eyes to patterns in life that could be unraveled with computers. I was hooked and I began putting my programming practice into action.
In 1983 while in high school in Bangalore, India, I got my hands on a ZX Spectrum, one of the first personal home computers available. I started programming in BASIC, the preferred language on that particular computer.
My dad was a district judge at the time. I would ask him how he came to his verdicts in cases and he would explain the complexities behind analyzing who was liable in accidents and how he would find the appropriate compensation for those affected. He would explain to me laws and precedents from previous cases, which he would take into account when he made his decisions.
I thought to myself: I can write a program for that. After a few weeks, we tested a prototype. My dad would tell me the facts of a case, we would input them into my program, and out would come the appropriate compensation. He was absolutely amazed at how well it could do that (remember, this was 35 years ago with one of the first computers ever, in India).
Eventually, he showed my program to his boss’s boss. That man went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India and still to this day tells the story of the 16-year-old boy who created a program that could compute court cases.
This was when I first realized computers were going to help us solve our most complex issues.
I grew up in India where I was surrounded by people who were denied basic opportunities in life – two of these being education and health care. The literacy rate is very low and quality health care is only available to the wealthiest.
Later in life, I got to work on a project called Spoken Web, which put access to the internet in the hands of people who can’t read. Imagine for a moment that you couldn’t read, this would seriously limit your access to a certain level of wellbeing. Spoken Web was designed to give illiterate people more opportunity and it was awarded recognition for empowering the underprivileged by the President of India.
Then I’ve gone on to work with Smart Cities, where we used the big data of cities to make them more livable and sustainable.
With IBM, I led the team that developed Watson, an artificial intelligence system that continues to transform the whole AI discipline. I’m proud to have represented my team’s work on the world’s most prestigious stages including the Nobel Prize and the Turing Lecture.
Over the last two decades, I’ve realized that to improve any industry, whether it be education, health care, cities, transportation, energy, housing, or food, the most effective change can be made through a deep understanding of what is going on within the system -- and data is the tell all that brings any system to life!
Using Artificial Intelligence for Better Health
After that initial call with Naveen in January 2017, I soon met with him, Helene, Momo, and Deepak in San Diego to discuss Viome, and later that night I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited. The next morning, I got up and decided that this was going to be my life.
Perplexing chronic conditions are on the rise and we need the help of technology like Viome’s artificial intelligence system to demystify and unveil the solutions to these complex problems. I simply cannot wait to see how this all unfolds!
You can read more about Viome’s AI in my article: Meet Vie – Viome’s Artificial Intelligence System.