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Dr. Yug Varma: “Be able to get up and try again”

I’m a big believer in small steps that lead to big change, whether it’s directed internally or externally. There are so many things in our life, from personal goals to long-term, global shifts where we think we can’t make a difference, and so we never take the first step. I would argue that the first […]

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I’m a big believer in small steps that lead to big change, whether it’s directed internally or externally. There are so many things in our life, from personal goals to long-term, global shifts where we think we can’t make a difference, and so we never take the first step. I would argue that the first step is in fact the most consequential, because everything is usually easier after that. Through personal experience, I’ve certainly gotten more comfortable with being uncomfortable and taking that small, bold first step. So whether it’s a personal goal like eating healthier or learning a new skill, or tackling wider challenges like climate change or political change, I encourage you to take the first small step, and you will be glad you did.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Yug Varma.

Dr. Varma is the cofounder and CEO of Phyla and Phi Therapeutics, a microbiome company based in San Francisco. He has an extensive background in bio-organic chemistry, microbiology, synthetic biology, and microbiome research. Yug received his scientific training at several distinguished academic institutions, including Johns Hopkins University (PhD) and University of California, San Francisco.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in Nagpur, India. I always thought of it as a small town, but it has over 2 million people! My parents are entrepreneurs and educators, and I’ve been inspired by my mom’s work ethic and determination, and my dad’s intellectual curiosity. I went to boarding school in high school, to this wonderful place called Rishi Valley School. It sort of changed my outlook on life and it occupies a very special place in my heart. I completed my undergraduate studies and the first of my two masters degrees in organic chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Being an entrepreneur is tough, both physically (the long hours) and mentally. It requires a great deal of mental stamina to fight through periods of uncertainty and doubt, which is an emotion that I think many people are feeling during this Covid crisis. I have found the book ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius to be an indispensable guide during my entrepreneurial journey. It’s basically a motivation journal of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was an adherent of stoicism, a Greek philosophy centered on resilience. It is organized in 12 chapters, and each chapter has a theme like ‘be grateful’, or ‘show empathy’, or ‘willingly contribute’. I am a big fan of stoic philosophy and I find it greatly consoling day-to-day, especially during this crisis.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I’m inspired by several quotes, but I’ll give you a couple. There is a quote by Seneca, which goes “To bear hardships with a tranquil mind robs hardship of its strength and weight”. During these hard times, I think mental health is so important and whatever your circumstance, I think it makes a huge difference if you face the day with a good or bad attitude. Another good one from the entrepreneur’s perspective (I don’t know if this is attributed to anyone) is “Successful people don’t say, ‘I know this’. They ask ‘Am I doing this?’”

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Yes, our company is developing technology based on microbiome research, that can help solve the antibiotic crisis. Using nature’s most powerful weapon against bacteria, we’re making tailored solutions for chronic diseases caused by bacteria, that are effective without antibiotics. Our brand is Phyla, and we are delivering this solution for acne, a nearly universal skin disorder that still relies on decades-old harsh treatments. Using our microbiome-based approach, you can get proven and powerful results that break the relief-and-relapse cycles of acne by leveraging a natural probiotic called phage, and avoid the harsh side effects and years of accumulated skin damage that you get with all other acne products.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Yes, like everyone else I’ve also had those moments where I’ve wondered what my life would be like if I’d just taken the leap. With my startup, I’d been nurturing this scientific idea for 8 years, since graduate school. And while I was in academia, I would day-dream and think ‘If only someone would let me work on this innovative solution to a very important problem (the antibiotic crisis), that would be my dream”. When I was a postdoc at UCSF, doing microbiome research and wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I was presented with two options — follow the path that others expect you to walk, or take a leap of faith and work on what truly drives you. I took an entrepreneurship class to develop this idea as a postdoc, and after that class not only did I realize that I really enjoyed bringing ideas to life, but that it was the only path for me. And I never looked back after that. That’s when I realized that no one was going to hand me this opportunity, and that I would have to grab it for myself. I’ve gotta tell you, that is a scary thought — to jump off the ledge without any guarantees, to back yourself and your dream with such conviction when you have so many doubts.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Gosh, there are so many now that we’ve been able to help. The closest to home is of course my cofounder Maria, who has been a long-time acne sufferer and who has seen such a difference with using our product daily, in that it really works and doesn’t damage your skin.

A recent individual who comes to mind is Gabriela, who has been battling severe acne for a long time and has been frustrated with relapses and severe irritation, dryness, and painful bleeding skin with other products. Phyla was the one system that finally gave her skin a break, calmed her inflammation and stopped her breakouts. Plus, she loved how gentle it was on her skin and that it didn’t cause drying or peeling. She’s one of many early adopters who’s finding a brand new way to treat her acne, and discovering that skin damage and pain doesn’t have to be a necessary part of acne treatment.

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

  1. The Problem: Sadly, the research world seems to have simply given up on acne. There hasn’t been true innovation in acne for nearly 40 years, and so people have simply accepted that acne products have to be harsh and irritating. They simply have no good options, and they need to start questioning whether their conventional and inflammation-inducing acne products are a help, or part of the problem.
  2. We’re helping educate people about acne and demystify the confusion that helps surround this. If there are any advocates listening, whether they serve the acne community or are a sufferer themselves, we need your help to spread this important message!
  3. I do think there are important issues that the broader community needs to engage in regarding our work, but I view it as a collaboration rather than a one-way street. It is our duty to bring innovation and educate, and only then is the community receptive to that change.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be flexible- if you have an idea that you think will work, it’s important to stay unattached and flexible based on the feedback you get from your customers or market
  2. Be focused- it’s easy to get feedback from well-intentioned friends and family, but it’s important that your team stays focused on the goals and what is important to your brand and target audience.
  3. Be willing to ask for help- it is important to allocate the right expert resources for certain things that need to be done right- like a website or marketing.
  4. Be available to your team- as a co-founder, it is easy to be separate from your team (especially while everyone is working remotely). It’s important for your team to have access to you and this helps improve company culture.
  5. Be able to get up and try again- there will be many setbacks that will make you feel like quitting. We use our “failures” as feedback to pivot and try something different that works.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious during this tumultuous time? Can you explain?

  1. Take time for yourself- many of us are quarantined with family members while trying to work. It’s important to take a few minutes out of your day to do something nice for yourself and your mental health.
  2. Communicate quickly- kindly addressing any issues quickly instead of letting it sit for too long helps to invoke action to take steps in the right direction. It leaves little room for resentment and makes each person feel heard.
  3. Ask how others are doing- before our team meetings, we genuinely ask how everyone is doing and encourage rest when needed.
  4. Express empathy- even in a work environment, empathy is needed at this time.
  5. Express gratitude- even for the littlest things; our health, having more time with family, etc.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I’m a big believer in small steps that lead to big change, whether it’s directed internally or externally. There are so many things in our life, from personal goals to long-term, global shifts where we think we can’t make a difference, and so we never take the first step. I would argue that the first step is in fact the most consequential, because everything is usually easier after that. Through personal experience, I’ve certainly gotten more comfortable with being uncomfortable and taking that small, bold first step. So whether it’s a personal goal like eating healthier or learning a new skill, or tackling wider challenges like climate change or political change, I encourage you to take the first small step, and you will be glad you did.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I would start would be the education and empowerment of women around the world. In India women are the glue that holds the household together, but girls are often neglected and overlooked from a young age. I think that if we paid special attention to lift up women from a young age, endow them with self-confidence and skills that match their intelligence and ambition, then it is the best thing we can do for our society and our future.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Since you’re broadcasting this and they might notice, I’ll cheat and give you two: one is Anand Giridharadas, who wrote the excellent ‘India Calling’ which analyzes a number of typically Indian paradoxes, which I found illuminating since I grew up in India and my fascination with cultural equilibrium. His latest book, ‘Winners Take All’ is an astute dissection of the modern culture of patronage that has built up around extreme wealth, and why that is a pernicious thing. I had the chance to see him at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco and I think he has a brilliant take on so many things.

The second is Rutger Bregman, a historian who wrote the excellent Utopia for Realists. During Covid I think a lot of people who are working from home are realizing that modern technology has actually made it possible for us to be highly productive at many (not all) jobs. One of Bregman’s proposals is a 3-day workweek, which was postulated in the 60’s and give us a more balanced life. I think he’s a visionary and I’d love to chat with him.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find our store at: https://phylabiotics.com/

We’re on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok at: @phylabiotics

We’re also on Facebook at: Phyla

Follow and like our posts!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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