Jenna Hua on Environmental Toxins, PHD to YC Founder & Citizen Science - E86

· Podcast Episodes,Founder,Women,Thought Leaders,Environment

"We can test our genes left and right today, and we can test for environmental exposures likeheavy metal. That's the only thing that we can test, but there's so many other exposures, you're talking about air quality, you're talking about toxic chemicals, none of these is available. And that's mind-boggling why this day and age that we can't even do anything about it. It's pretty frustrating that we just don't have answers. And I also think partially that we don'thave answer is that we don't have the data. Now, that you can see that precision medicine is advancing, we have big data in medicine, in genetics, in digital health, and then we have all these, but there isn't really a way to integrate these data, and there haven't been enough study to actually focus on this kind of thing." - Jenna Hua

Jenna Hua is the founder and CEO of Million Marker, a health-tech company that empowers people to detox their lives through mail-in test kits, lifestyle audits, and counseling. Harmful chemicals are present in food and drinks, plastics, and everyday products. These chemicals have been linked to infertility, IVF failure, child development, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Million Marker is the first and only company that makes it easy for everyday consumers to learn about their toxic chemical exposure, and provides scientific and actionable solutions to minimize future exposure.

A registered dietitian and environmental health scientist by training, Jenna completed her Bachelor's of Science in Nutrition, Master of Public Health and PhD in Environmental Health Sciences at UC Berkeley, and postdoctoral fellowship in chronic disease prevention at Stanford Medicine. Jenna's past research has focused on how our surrounding environment impacts our behaviros and health. An ardent believer in disease prevention, Jenna wants to provide personalized preventive strategies to everyone to lead a healthier life.

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Jeremy Au (00:00): 

Hey, Jenna. So, good to have you on the show. 

Jenna Hua (00:02):Thank you so much, Jeremy. I'm excited to be here. 

Jeremy Au (00:05): 

Well, I'm really excited to have you because you're doing something so important. This mission to really help people understand the exposure to environmental toxins and be able to remediate that, right? Which is amazing because you're just giving power back to people to be able to be in control of their own health. And I'm so excited to have gotten to know you, but also to be backing you as an angel investor. And I can't wait to share with the world what I heard from you. 

Jenna Hua (00:33): Thank you. Thank you. I'm really glad that you're our angle investor and maybe one day we'll go to 

Singapore. We'll go to the rest of the world. 

Jeremy Au (00:41): 

Oh, yeah. And I'll be hopefully be back in California and swing by sometime once this pandemic is over. So, Jenna, I mean for those who don't know yet, could you just share a little bit about your professional journey? 

Jenna Hua (00:52): 

Yes. So, my name is Jenna. I'm the founder and CEO of Million Marker. At Million Marker, we're on a mission to empower people to take control of their environmental exposures and make healthier lifestyle decisions. So, together we can build a more sustainable future. 

The reason I came to build Million Marker was partially because my professional career as an academic researcher in environmental health, I was through my research I realized that we actually don't have data to allow people to study, to actually study these environmental exposure and no personalized data to make it actionable for people to know, "Okay, what is my exposure and how do I mitigate these exposures?" Because if you and I have different genes, even if we have the same environmental exposure, same amount of environmental exposure, we would respond very differently, and we just simply don't have data for that. And that was part of the wall that I ran into in my research. 

The second reason was because my own fertility struggles. I had four late stage miscarriages and the doctors couldn't figure out what's going on with me, because I studied this. I knew environmental culprit could lead to infertility, miscarriages, a lot of fertility issues. When I asked the doctor, "Could I get a test just to make sure that this is not one of the reasons?" Doctor was like, "No. There's no such tests available." 

We can test our genes left and right today, and we can test for environmental exposures like heavy metal. That's the only thing that we can test, but there's so many other exposures, you're talking about air quality, you're talking about toxic chemicals, none of these is available. And that's mind- boggling why this day and age that we can't even do anything about it. If you test your genes, there's not much you can do about it, but the environment you can actually do something about it, and there isn't such a test, and there's nothing we can do. So, that prompt me to start Million Marker. 

Jeremy Au (02:57): 

Thanks for sharing that personal journey and I think there's two parts to it. Like you said one is obviously the coming together of your professional side, understanding that this doesn't exist for consumers, which is a shame, but also that personal journey of being someone who couldn't get access to that in your own fertility journey. 

So, let's talk about that a little bit. So, when you think about fertility and you start a thing where you wanted to get and figure out why you couldn't proceed, what was it like to get stonewalled I guess by the doctor and the medical system to be like you can't test for this? Which is something that you and your professional career could do all the time at a lab, but you couldn't do as a woman and a person who wants to be a mother. 

Jenna Hua (03:46): 

It was very frustrating. So, you'd think like human has been procreating for thousands of years, science would have figured out all the fertility issues, but not really. You get standard tests. Yes, doctor tells you eat well, don't smoke, don't drink alcohol, but there are still so many things we have not figured out and the doctor kind of just tell you, "Good luck next time." And there was no diagnosis. Even now that I actually have diagnoses of my conditions, they still couldn't figure out like why I'm getting these conditions, how can people actually prevent these conditions. If there's another Jenna like experiencing this, how can we prevent her from going through what I went through? 

So, it's pretty frustrating that we just don't have answers. And I also think partially that we don't have answer is that we don't have the data. Now, that you can see that precision medicine is advancing, we have big data in medicine, in genetics, in digital health, and then we have all these, but there isn't really a way to integrate these data, and there haven't been enough study to actually focus on this kind of thing. 

Jeremy Au (04:59):

So, how big is a problem for environmental exposure or toxins? How is that intersecting with fertility/infertility for those who don't understand science at a higher level? 

Jenna Hua (05:13): 

So, maybe I can backtrack a little bit to tell people what are environmental exposures. So, environmental exposures are actually pretty broad. It encompasses ranging from the food you eat, the air you breathe, the product you use. Pretty much everything that you interact with, those are all your environmental exposures. And environmental toxics is one of the culprits out of all these exposures. And there have been at least three decades of study showing that these exposure, environmental toxic exposures are actually linked to fertility. 

You're talking about it increases PCOS, P-C-O-S, polycystic ovarian syndrome. It impacts that. It also impacts endometriosis. It could make it worse. Now, we've seen like, besides fertility, we have seen that there's increasing ADHD, autism disorder, spectrum disorder. You see that, and then most recently, Dr. Shanna Swan from Mount Sinai have published a book called Countdown. That's pretty much showing that environmental exposures, particularly these environmental toxic exposures have led to a decrease in men's sperm count and it's definitely impacting fertility. 

And obviously there's other markers like how it impacts fertility is that if you have higher exposure of these environmental toxics, you would have higher chance of getting, having miscarriages and having low birth weight, you name it. 

Jeremy Au (06:41): 

Yeah. And it's kind of crazy that there is all this... Environmental exposure sounds such a nice, we were saying like, "Hey, the stuff around you could be poisoning you." And it feels like it's something that is understood, I think of mothers who have children, right? I think that parents are very careful these days. It'd be, okay, I don't want to use BPA. I want to be a little bit safer around the chemicals, organic for kids, but this is interesting where it kind of feels like, "Oh, but if it's for adults, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to me, whether I do this or not. I'm invulnerable. It wouldn't happen to me." 

So, it's kind of like dichotomous, right? We care so much about protecting our kids from these chemicals, but then we don't really care about it to ourselves and to our friends and family. 

Jenna Hua (07:37): 

I think this is part of a myth. Well, not exactly a myth. We think everyone should care about it. The reason that people don't have the awareness, I think of one is that these chemicals are, you're talking about this kind of exposure, it's very low dose exposure. Meaning, you get exposed very little, but you get exposed day in and day out. They're not going to kill you tomorrow, but you don't know if they're going to give you a problem 10 years down the road. 

And the one issue to point out in study is that developmental timing really matters. So, the younger you get exposed, the more detrimental impact it could have, but I think adult needs to care about it. We're trying to focus on the preconception population. So, if you're thinking about getting pregnant that's the time that you should really trying to detox, and then clean out your body, and so then you can actually have, be a good host for your kids. But obviously for young parents too with young kids that creating an environment, having a lower exposure for your kids is actually pretty important. 

Jeremy Au (08:42): 

Yeah. And I think it's interesting because that's a big problem because for so many people who are planning to have kids or are having kids or already have kids, this is something that everyone's very mindful about, right? Around chemical exposure and everything. But also feels like it's a broader problem as well, right? It's not just for people who want to have kids, it's also for people who know they're living in areas that are industrial or have historically high levels of atmospheric or environmental toxins. 

I mean there's plenty of like bad actors actually out there who have been improper or negligent in the way they handle, they dispose of toxic chemicals or byproducts in the environment. I mean it happens all the time in emerging markets and developing countries, but obviously to a more subtle or regulated extent, in the developed world. And it matters for everybody who is trying to figure out what's going on with their body, right? 

So, I think it's kind of interesting where I think the way that you've been this, obviously, comes from your own story, but could really help a lot of people who are struggling with getting poisoned unintentionally or accidentally or just unaware. 

Jenna Hua (10:02): 

Exactly. These chemicals are actually everywhere. So, in the US there are about 80,000 chemicals in use, industrial chemicals, synthetic chemicals in use today, in consumer products, in all kinds of things. And only 1% of these 80,000 chemicals we actually have enough safety data. So, the government is pretty much cannot keep up with how many chemicals the companies are producing and to releasing the environment. We simply don't have data. 

And then, now you kind of talk about BPA, right? People trying to live a healthier lifestyle by choosing BPA free. What happens is the industry starts swapping out since BPA is banned, that industries start using BPS, BPF, and they can make all kinds of combination all the way from BPA to BPZ. And then, these chemicals have shown that they have the similar detrimental effect just as BPA on human body. 

And the one thing that all the scientists, at least in the research community people trying to push is this principle called precautionary principle. So, meaning that if we already know that this chemical could have these potential issues, then we should all ban them and not having regrettable substitute like BPS and BPF. So, they should all be banned as a class. So, then consumers don't have to worry about that. 

And then, that's also another reason that we built Million Marker is that waiting for government to make any policy change, especially in the US with lobbyists and everything, it would be so slow. We would have accumulated so much health care cost overall if we don't empower consumers to actually know their numbers, know their data to push for safer policy and safer products. 

Jeremy Au (11:45): 

Yeah. I mean that's kind of a great example, because I, as a parent of a six month old, but you're preparing for it et cetera, I was aware that we should be BPA free because it trickles down to the news to be like, "You got to be BPA free." But I think what you kind of realize very quickly is this like if you actually just dig, but it's not obvious to most people, right? But exactly what you said is if you're still using a plastic bottle, this is using a different substitute for BPA and it's not that it's been proven safe, it's just that there isn't data to show that's harmful even though structurally and chemically it's pretty similar, right? 

And it's kind of this weird thing where you're like, "Whoa. Okay." I respect in a terrible horrible way the marketers and the people making these plastic bottles to be like, okay, we got to keep a business going by swapping in to something else that doesn't have these toxic data to say this. And so, we're able to say with BPA free, but it's truly horrible because the mass market understanding just doesn't even have that dynamic and the truth is if a consumer said to themselves and said, "Hey, I understand this is a BPA substitute that's also harmful or potentially harmful and I still choose to use it." 

I think that's at least one bound better, but I think the problem is that most people are like, "Oh, I'm using a BPA free bottle and that means I have no issues for myself or the kid because it's safe." And it's just mind-boggling, right? Because it's you and me, we've both had that academic and scientific training and statistical rigor to be like, "Okay. The lack of data doesn't mean that it's proof that something exists there." So, it's a really a big crying shame honestly. 

Jenna Hua (13:36): 

But we're making changes. We're hoping with our service that more people can get to know what their exposures are. So, together we can actually push for safer policy and I think that's important. Because I mean BPA is actually this magical chemical. It makes plastic shatter proof. It extends a shelf life for food and it coats, thermal recede, it coats cans. 

It really helps industry when they first develop this magical chemical, except backfired in terms of human health, but because it's everywhere, it's really hard to get rid of it. Because you just unintentionally get exposed to. So, that's why we felt that if we make people aware that where they're getting exposed to, then they can intentionally trying to avoid these chemicals. If you don't test and if you don't know, then it's like you don't even know where the sources are coming from then it's harder for you to avoid. 

Jeremy Au (14:35): 

Yeah. I think that's really the kind of crux of it, right? Which is if you're not even aware that this thing has toxins, that's one level of understanding, but the more personal understanding is do I have too much of that chemical in my body, right? And I think that's a very much more relevant question for everybody and a much more energizing question, right? Because if you ask me right now, I'm still waiting for my kid, right? 

I'm like, "I don't know if I'm healthy." And that's something to really be thinking about, right? I think from a day in and day out dynamic. And so, when you think about giving people access, what is it that they have to be thinking about, right? Because I know in the genetic world, it's very much like if you do this genetic test, you have to be aware that you may find out that you have inheritable genes that are terrible, you're a carrier or that your diseases, and so you have to be aware that going in you should be aware about this. 

And the next stage, of course, is if you opt into our ancestry report, you have to be aware that you might find your half siblings or someone else that you didn't know or your parents are not who you thought they were. So, what is it that people who are kind of like going and using Million Marker, what should they be aware of going in just to be mindful about? 

Jenna Hua (16:07): 

I think like what people should be mindful of is that your level won't be zero, because they're everywhere. And according to USCDC, 98% of people have these chemicals in them, have these chemicals present in their body. It just in terms of how much. How much is actually in your body? 

So, it's actually impossible to get rid of everything, but it's possible to reduce them. So, the moment you know that you can start reducing. And then, you can just take very simple steps, and we have seen dramatic changes when people know their sources. And then, they're trying to eliminate them. And then, they were able to reduce them to a reasonable number. 

Jeremy Au (16:45): 

Yeah. I mean that makes a lot of sense, right? Because I mean first of all, I think that's a good point that you raised, which is like it or not, we're living in a 21st century and the truth is BPA is everywhere and substitutes are everywhere, even the takeout food that I receive is in, the soup I get in my delivery is in a plastic container, and they say BPA free, but you're like very much like you said it's other substitutes are in there. It's a hot soup, et cetera, at least I don't try to microwave them as I used to do in my teenage years. 

Jenna Hua (17:17): Good. Good. Good. 

Jeremy Au (17:19): 

Because I used to be like, "Oh, I'm invulnerable. I'm in the military so let's just microwave my food in these plastic..." In retrospect kind of dumb. I don't know why I was doing that, but again it was just like I didn't feel like a real problem, right? And now, I'm like, "Whoa." Like I said, it doesn't kill me straight away, but what does it mean if I ate a lot of takeout? Which I did. 

So, who knows? But of course, now that people are able to test themselves, I think they're able to take control of that, right? So, when you talk about remediation, kind of taking control of the lifestyle. So, let's say I walk in and I do this test and I'm like, "Whoa." These things are present, but I can't do anything about it, because it feels like it's at a level where the government says, "It's probably safe. We don't know. We don't have the data about it." But everyone has that level. 

And here's a one or two markers that are just elevated and there is sufficient data to say that's unsafe. So, there's that probabilistic assessment that you're providing people, how do people take action to solve it? Could you give an example for one of the markets you talked about and how people could change your lifestyle? 

Jenna Hua (18:30): 

Yes. So, actually, besides testing people's pee, testing people's urine. We actually before they send us their samples, we actually ask them to fill out an exposure journal. The journal captures what they have eaten in the last 24 hours, as well as what kind of product they've used. The interesting thing is people don't change their behavior that often. People tend to fall into the same habits. 

So, then by taking this kind of exposure survey, we're able to pinpoint what are the potential sources. So, for example, would ask, "Okay. How many times have you eaten out? Did you use any plastic utensils?" That's one. The second is, "Okay. Did you touch thermal receipts, gas station receipts, grocery store receipts, any kind?" If you can scratch that receipt and if there's a mark on it, most of the time it's coated by BPA. 

Do you eat a lot of canned food? That's another one a piece for BPA, because canned food linings are coated with BPA or not even just canned food, right? Canned drinks, if you drink a lot of beers out of the can or if you drink a lot of bubble water out of can. I'm pretty sure you're exposed just depending on how much. So, BPA is one of them. 

Another really big one is this chemical called phthalates. Phthalates are a chemical that actually make plastic soft. So, BPA kind of makes a plastic hard and the phthalates actually make plastic flexible and soft. And phthalates are also in a lot of personal care products. So, one thing when we do the audit is we ask people what kind of personal care product they use, and then we actually screen to look at the ingredients of the personal care products that they're using. 

So, anytime that if you see there's fragrance in your personal care product as one of the ingredients, almost 100% of time, there's going to be phthalates in them. So, that's one. Sometimes phthalates are also in vitamin capsules, many times that's not labeled. So, if you see say in product label that has a slow release or if they don't use a vegetarian glycerin or any of these safer alternatives. I'm pretty sure phthalates in them. 

Phthalates are also in toothbrush. So, it's really hard to avoid them, but by doing this kind of survey, and then by also measuring people, we're able to pinpoint where your exposures are coming from. And all you have to do is pretty simple. It's hard for people to, say if I'm really busy, I'll eat take out, I'll just need to buy takeout because I have no time to cook. Then, maybe you should think about perhaps reducing the amount of time that I'm eating out. Starting really small. If you're eating out five times a week, let's reduce it to four, let's reduce to three. And then, slowly, right? 

And then, for personal care products, if you know which one is bad, then you can easily swap out the personal care product and choose a safer brand. So, these are really simple steps that you could do to reduce your exposures. 

Jeremy Au (21:31): 

Doesn't that feel scary? I mean I think that's going to be the big hold up for so many people, right? Because I think the thing about genetics is when I do the test, it's a way for me, and I did one of those. It's very much a good way for me to find out maybe I'm a carrier for something for my child, but it doesn't change my behavior per se, maybe there's a small chance maybe if I was, where maybe I'm worried about the breast cancer genes that predispose you to that. That's actually a more elevated sense of fear that can come up, but it's pretty rare as well. 

And it is a more straightforward remediation, which is mastectomy or other ways to handle that piece of news or even my ancestry. It doesn't really change my life per se maybe it makes me happy, makes me sad, right? Who knows? Right? But when it comes to like this, I can imagine there's a lot of fear, because a lot of people are going to do this thing and they're like, "Well, I'm doing this log and everything and as I do this stuff and I do this test, I'm scared, because I'm not just scared about the result, but I'm scared to get the result." If the result is negative, then it's like... Generally regardless as safe levels of exposure. 

And I'd be like, "Oh, that's good." But if I find out that I have to start changing my lifestyle, I have to stop using my toothbrush the way I'm using it. I can't use my fragrance, shampoo that I use for the past 10 years of my life or Head and Shoulders, I have to start using wooden cutlery instead of using the takeout. Then, I'm going to start becoming an organic hipster or hippie. It feels like... I mean that's that fear, right? It's like, "I don't want to become... If I do this, take this test, am I going to become hippie?" So, I don't know. Do you have any thoughts about that? 

Jenna Hua (23:24): 

But I think you actually have to think about the bigger pictures though, right? So, before I started Million Marker, I was in public health research, and then in public health when you talk about improving population health or improve individual health, you're not just thinking about when you get sick. You're thinking about prevention, and then you're thinking about quality of life. 

And I kind of feel that this kind of thing is that our kind of test is mainly, it's for prevention. It's for you having a better quality of life down the road. So, I think our goal is not to fear monger people. Yes. It could be really fearful for some people, but our goal is not to try to scare people from actually just making people aware and empower, make people feel empowered rather than scary, but when I first started studying this, I did like, I felt like as a researcher, as someone studied this, and I'm like, "People should be scared." But at the same time, it's like, "Okay. If we actually want to make meaningful changes and if we wanted people have this shifting mindset, we can't just scare people." 

Scary technique works sometimes, but it doesn't work all the time. And instead of what we really want to do is to empower people with their own data so they can actually make meaningful changes. And then, we don't want people to... You don't have to swap out everything at the same time. You can do step by step, and then that's what we felt, this is where the value is. And oftentimes this is us also being proven in behavioral research that if you start changing your lifestyle in a good way and many other things can follow. 

So, for example, someone started exercising from being really sedentary. Once they start exercising all of a sudden they realize, "Okay. I need to eat better." And then, now my nutrition is improved, and then because these toxic chemicals are everywhere it seemed it has to do with your lifestyle, has to do with your diet. If you start worrying about these chemicals, "Okay. I'm going to eat out less. I'm going to cook more at home." 

My diet is better. I'm spending more time with my family, with my kids, with my loved ones. My emotional status is better. My work is better. I'm improving everything. So, you could see a lot of positive changes, maybe just coming from this one small change. So, I think what we're trying to push is a positive way, an empowering way, inspiring way rather than just trying to scare people. 

Jeremy Au (26:03): 

Yeah. I think there's a lot there to unpack, because at one level, you're right, the fear already exists, right? It's just the public, the academics, the doctors, the medical researchers are already scared for the population, because at a population level you see how much metric tons of chemicals are being pumped into bodies everywhere so you can see that level. 

And I think most individual humans who are aware kind of care about their health, right? Nobody would ever drink mercury today, right? Back in the day, mercury was considered a magical substance that everybody would touch. And now, if you told everybody today, you said, "Touch this mercury." Everybody... I'll say who's aware about it would just be fly out be like, "No. I won't touch it because I know it's poisonous now." Just like how we now know arsenic used to be considered a magical substance, and now everybody is like, "Whoa. I don't want to drink or eat or touch anything of arsenic." 

So, I think it's just the fear is a normal biological human impulse, which is when we're aware of it, we don't want it in our bodies, we don't want it to impact our health. Just like why we wouldn't run into a fire or why we wouldn't throw ourselves off a cliff, right? That's that self-preservation health dynamic that exists, right? And I think what I really enjoy about me saying this is that I think you're kind of implying is when people know about this, they're starting to aware that when people start to become aware that mercury was poisonous and people started becoming aware that arsenic was poisonous, the fear was always there, right? It's just that now you can actually take action on it, which is the big difference and it's pretty straightforward to take action actually. 

Jenna Hua (27:54): 

Exactly. Also besides that's good for your own health, it's also good for our overall environment, because as I mentioned that these are common, these chemicals are a lot of times common plasticizers. They're using so much in plastic. So, if you actually reduce your plastic usage, your plastic exposure at the same time you're helping yourself, but you're also helping the environment. 

So, if everyone switch, stop eating take out or bring your own containers, bring your own shopping bags, and then this could really help reduce our overall plastic consumption, but at the same time you're also reducing your exposure to these plastic chemicals that could actually impact your hormone, impact your overall health. 

Jeremy Au (28:41): 

Yeah. There's a lot of truth there and it sounds like there's a lot of actually societal benefit from this. So, one, of course, is like I said improving your own health, which is one reason. And the second one, of course, is if you're a mom is improving your child's health, right? Because you want to make sure they don’t have exposure, you want to make sure the breast milk or the womb is a safe place for the kids. So, there's lots of different reasons to do it for your kids, but what's also interesting about what you're saying is, yeah, when you change your behavior, you're also changing and voting with your own wallet to what is the future you want to have, but also I mean just like bring some of you, I'll say a bunch of benefits is of course it benefits the health care system because it helps you be a healthier person so that you end up having a longer, healthier, productive life. 

So, the healthcare system is less burdened by you being impacted by issues caused by these environmental exposures. It also helps the country's tax system, just bring something here, because you stay, you are more productive human healthy worker for a longer period of time versus having an illness earlier in life. So, that's a good way to, that's a pro-tax benefit. 

And also, I think it's beneficial because it... I would also say it energizes the scientific awareness, because I think one thing I remember I was very struck by your deck was also that you felt if you were able to do this at scale at Million Marker, you would also be able to help contribute to the body of research around environmental exposure, because like you said only 1% of chemicals are very much like we know that they are safe or unsafe, and the other 99%, we don't have enough data, but a bit of a chicken/egg problem, right? Because we talked about this, which is because we don't do testing for it, we can't figure out whether they are safe or unsafe. 

And because we don't have enough data to say that it's safe or unsafe, then we don't bother investing in testing public infrastructure to test for those things. And so, as a result, no results and this is like where everybody agrees to close their eyes, because it makes the industries money and it's cheaper, right? So, could you share more about that long-term game about contributing to the body of research? 

Jenna Hua (31:06): 

Yes. So, I kind of also mentioned that one reason that I ran into during my research is that we have no data. So, not a lot of country have set up these biomonitoring systems. So, when we test for people's chemical exposures, and then we call this a term called biomonitoring. So, in the US, this is done by the CDC. And the CDC screens about 3000 people every other year, not even the same people. 

So, it's a true cross-sectional data, but if you actually think about your gender, your age, your ethnicity, your exposure, the 3000 people out of the entire US, that's not that many people. I'm not saying that CDC is not doing a good job, it's good, it's better to have than not having it, but together, I think we can do so much more. 

And I also mentioned that these exposure you're talking about very small dose over time day in and day out, and this is also a statistical issue, right? If you have a small dose and day in and day out and you have a lot of noise, if you don't have the large data set, you just can't study it. It's just impossible to study. 

And if you think about studying these chemicals and the human impacting of these chemicals, you can't really do a study really ethically, because typical study, gold standard study you do a randomized control trial, you have your control group, you have your treatment group, then you expose your treatment group, but you can't expose humans on significant amount of chemicals and actually study, right? 

So, then what do you do? You kind of need a lot of data. One, the testing needs to be better before it gets released. The second is the way you need to work together, at least for existing of these chemicals, we need to do better to actually monitor human exposure and monitor human health outcome to actually know that, hey, if this is a problem, we better stop it. So, then we don't impact, we don't affect our future generations. 

So, what we're hoping to build is this environmental exposure database that we have the intake of people's external environmental exposure data. We know what's happening in your body, we pair it with your digital health biomarkers, your Fitbit, where do you do exercise? Where do you live? What's your air quality level? What are your other health conditions? What are your cholesterol levels? For example, and when you get sick, what are your thickness? 

When we combining all these data together, we'll be able to see the patterns. For certain people, if you have this exposure that could lead to your later future health condition or something or say if you share the same exposure with people around you, then when we know what your potential exposures are and know your potential health outcome, then people in a similar situation or younger, say your kids, then we'll know better how to help them prevent these conditions, and then live a better life. 

That's more for the future, the vision of the company is being able to have this comprehensive environmental exposure database so we can actually see these patterns. And then, to inform future generations what to do to protect them better. 

Jeremy Au (34:25): 

Yeah. That's amazing because that really is what's needed. And I think it's such a great opportunity for people to help in the creation of science, right? Citizen science, right? Which is about participation and voluntarily helping out. I mean I still remember I used to donate my laptop screensaver so SETI at home to detect alien signals. 

And I was like, "Yey." Maybe the aliens out there and I can help search for them using my screensaver. I tried to use, which was the folding game exercise for drug molecules and genes. So, that was a fun dynamic that I was trying to get into. And I think the amazing thing here is like you said is I think it's a little bit different from, obviously, the genetics world where obviously a lot of people have also donated the information as well to help in discovery and treatments for rare diseases et cetera. 

But of course, it's a little bit different because it's a bit of a... What's the word? There's more identifiable information, which is the signature of your body which makes it also a little bit more concerns around privacy. But I think here people sharing their environment exposure, firstly, there's no bio data that's truly a signature dynamic, right? But if we're able to get like you said 3000 people to just even get there, you already are doubling the amount of samples for us to test what that looks like, right? 

And you can imagine a very, over time a passionate community over time that not everyone would be comfortable, obviously, but a subset would be say like, "Hey, I'm doing this regular testing not just for my own health, I'm just contributing to the greater cause of us trying to figure out which chemicals are actually safe to use and which chemicals are not safe to use." And that's not just helping me, but helping thousands of, hundreds of thousands of people and children because now the government and regulators have the information to act on what they should be in bounds and out of bounds for chemicals. 

Jenna Hua (36:45): 

Yeah. I totally agree. And citizen science actually is really, really powerful. And I think also we don't just want people to contribute their data, we also want people to benefit. And I think this is something that if we can actually build something people want, which is so far we think people want this, at least according to all the physicians that we've talked to and trying to provide this to their patients. That when we can make something people want, at the same time that people are able to contribute to science, contribute to a better society, then why not? It's a win-win for everybody. 

Jeremy Au (37:23): 

Yeah. And that's why I think this is such an amazing revolution, because you're not just doing for your own health, which of course everybody's thinking about, but you are helping contribute to the better health of literally millions of people around the world. Because if we discover one chemical is safe, that's great. And if we discover one chemical is unsafe, we help millions of people around the world immediately because regulators take cues from each other, from the FDA, from the EU about what's there. 

And then, it cascades throughout the entire system and companies now have the information and the basic science to say, "Hey, let's substitute something safer." And actually the thing I think about as well is as there's a huge compounding effect of us discovering these things. I mean to be super obvious would be like, yeah, the moment we discovered the arsenic was unhealthy, we not only helped the people of that generation, we helped multiple generations of humans since then over the past 50 years, but also we're going to help the next 10,000 years of human kindness avoid this exposure to arsenic. 

And if we discover 10 more chemicals that are there, we literally preserve the health and longevity and energy of not just our generation, but thousands of generations to come, which is amazing. 

Jenna Hua (38:50): 

Yes. It's also not just harmful chemicals, and one thing we're also trying to... We're starting from harmful chemicals to help people avoid, but a lot of environmental exposures are actually positive. If you think about say your exposure to green space, if you have higher exposure to green space research have shown that people have a higher exposure to green space they have better quality of life. 

And if people are in the hospital trying to recover if they're actually exposed to green space they're actually recovered better. So, in one day with the database that we're building, we're also able to tell, "Hey, how much green space exposure are you having? What are the some of the positive exposures that you have that you should continue to have these exposures or getting more of these exposures so then you can live better?" So, besides the harmful markers, so what are the good markers that we should also try tom promote? 

Jeremy Au (39:42): 

That's amazing. I mean that's even better, because we're talking about unsafe, safe, but also beneficial, which is an awesome dynamic that I hadn't even thought about. And so, you've been doing this and building this out and I always think to myself, you always kind of undersell yourself a little bit, because we went to Cal together, we overlapped. 

You did undergrad, you did a masters of public health, and then you did a PhD at Berkeley, you were at Stanford. And then, you're also a Y company to start up as well, right? So, there's all these things that you have done so far, and can you tell us a little bit more about what's it like, obviously, we've been talking about this as a problem tackle and why such a, what they call it? Tree, fire, alarm bell kind of problem if we really think about it. Can we talk a little bit more about how you started and saying like, "This needs to be a startup and something that's better for me to build outside the academia system that you're part of and say, 'This is something that I could potentially build as a startup route?'" 

Jenna Hua (40:53): 

So, the reason I started is partially I was actually, before I started the company I was actually trying to get a National Institute of Health funding to do this kind of research. And if you think about, I think all the academic can echoing with this is the funding cycle for academic research is just really long. 

And when I was doing academic research, we would spend... The funding cycle is usually like a year. It would take you a year to get a grant. Fund starting, when you start writing a grant and submit a grant to NIH, get it approved, and then actually get funded, if you get funded. That's talking about a year, and the largest grant, most of the time you can apply is called a research grant R01. 

The research grant will cover about, it will give you about $5 million. Okay. With $5 million, you can run about five years. If you want to recruit human subjects into your research, in five years with $5 million, most of the time if you want to follow people for two years, because we want to see how people respond to a study longitudinally, you can probably recruit about 300 people or a little bit more, max, that's it. You'll burn out all the money. 

So, when you think about this kind of paradigm, 300 people studying for 2 years, how generalizable are these 300 people that you studied? You have pretty good internal validity. You can say that within these 300 people these are the patterns that we see, this is the results we get, but how generalizable is it to the rest of the public, to the rest of the population? It's very hard. 

So, then as I mentioned before if you want to study these chemicals like small dose and you have many, many different factors, 300 people is like, it's just you will never get to the statistical significance that you can actually study. Your study will be really flawed if you don't have large data set to actually study this. So, then I was really bothered by it. Even if I become the best researcher in the world and I get all the funding from NIH, we just can't study. The study will be very flawed, and just simply because we don't have the data. 

So, I was pretty frustrated by it. And I think it absolutely need to be crowd-sourced way to study these chemicals. And in order to make a crowd-sourced way, to actually recruit people as citizen science, how do you incentivize people to join your study? Yeah. Even if we have a lot of passionate citizen scientists, and then they will join the study, but how many of them in the world can you actually recruit? 

And then, that's why I started thinking, "Can we actually shift our mind of thinking of can we make into a product that people actually want?" If this is something that people want, then thousand people, hundred thousand people, people will actually pay for the service because they wanted the service. And then, at the same time that we can actually collect the data and to actually have the power to study these things. And wouldn’t that be like a win-win situation? 

So, that kind of eventually prompted me to, "Okay, maybe we need to try a different way of thinking." And so, that's one. And that the other thing is once I started the company, it's hard. It's really hard. It's much harder than being a researcher, because a lot of things you just don't think about. In research, we never think about customer satisfaction really. 

We have study participants, but people kind of join as they wish. We don't really think about engagement as much. How do we create a good customer experience? And that's something that we don't think about. How do we do proper marketing? I think health system or just health in general, research in general, a lot of researchers could benefit from these aspects of business. How do we engage our study participant better so then they are more engaged? How do we provide a study? How do we even get say public health message out there using a marketing, using these techniques, using, pushing people through the funnel? 

We don't really even think about that in research. So, this is part of going through this entrepreneurial journey allow me to see that, "Okay, these are the aspects we can actually deploy." Now, that we're building a company, we're trying to raise awareness, but we don't forget that we still have a mission to promote public health, and then to do all these things. 

So, that's also added benefit besides the initial start motivation of building a company is that we can actually use the company as a platform to actually build a better health system, and to spread the message, and then to make people healthier. 

Jeremy Au (45:43): 

Wow. Thanks for being frank about some of the challenges of transitioning from academia to building a company. And one interesting thing about that of course is that as a startup, I got to hear you articulate the story, right? And one part that struck me at least was like, hey, I get this story obviously because I've worked with mothers and children and family, so I kind of get the problem, but I also really appreciated that the way you pitched me was a very clear story I think about what you wanted to do, and what would be the impact of the things you do and how you will get there. 

And I thought it was really interesting because most people who I know who are PhDs and very academy of focus, they find it very difficult to make the transition into the startup/storytelling/articulation mode, right? And again, it's not because they're bad at it or anything, it's just that they haven't got the training that people normally get or have the exposure. So, I'm just wondering how did you go about improving the way that you... I mean successfully story told to me, but how did you kind of get to where you did? Was it from coaching, feedback, YC? How did you learn how to make that transition? 

Jenna Hua (47:08): 

I think it's almost all of the above. I'm still not very good at it. And I think that's why I haven't been successful raising a lot of funding. I have been really being supported by angels like you, but I haven't been super successful in terms of getting funding. And I think there's still a lot for me to improve. 

I mean I guess I'll give one example. So, I'm still feeling pretty shy with social media. And then, we've been reaching out to a lot of doctor influencers. And then, one of the doctors she told me that how she kind of shifts her way of thinking is that her purpose is getting the message out there and educate the public, and that's why she's willing to break down her wall. And then, show up in social media and do these things. 

And I was like, "Okay. This is this kind of like a mind shift is quite interesting." But training obviously matters. And that I also have to give credit to Berkeley. So, during my PhD training, Berkeley have always promoted students to do their own project from start to finish, rather than doing a secondary data analysis, that data collected by other people. Berkeley actually promote all PhD student to go out collect your own data, getting your own funding, collect your own data, do your own research from start to finish. 

So, I kind of had that training that I had to manage students. And then, to actually get my study done, get funding. So, the process of kind of setting up a study, getting funding, managing student is kind of almost like managing a startup. So, I definitely benefited from there. And then, when I got to Stanford for my postdoc, that was a whole different game. 

Stanford feels like it's very entrepreneur and I also had the opportunity to do this Stanford Ignite Program at the B School. That also opened my eyes about, how do people set up business? How is even Business School organized? Oh, my god, Business School is so organized. You went through MBA you know, but coming from a public health, and that it feels that everything is not super organized. I went to B School, I was like, "Oh, my goodness. Unbelievable." 

They have agenda. They have flash drive with Stanford B School stamp on it. Everything's super organized. I was like, "Wow. I'm so impressed." And then, just even talking about there are courses on negotiation, there are courses on marketing, before this, I had no idea marketing funnel even existed. You raise awareness, and then you push people through the funnel. 

I mean everything made sense, but we're just like I was just never exposed to. And then, when I got into YC, then it's another different way of looking at things that you see these successful entrepreneurs. They all can tell their stories. You kind of start learning from other people, the ones that you get exposed to. So, if you didn't... I think if I didn't have the opportunity to go through these kind of, having these kind of experience, then I wouldn't learn as much. 

So, I think all these experiences kind of contributed to who I am and where I am today, but I think they're still so much more to learn from others and so much to improve. 

Jeremy Au (50:30): 

You're better than you currently say you are. That's what I'll say and I'm sure you continue to kick ass at the way and rate you're learning. Obviously, things haven't always been smooth. We talked a little bit about it all the time. Could you share with us a time when things were tough, there was some adversity, and then you had to choose to be brave? 

Jenna Hua (50:51): 

I think my first experience of choosing to be brave is letting one of my employees go. I think that was very, very hard for me. But when you have to balance out, okay, your survival of your company, balancing funding when you don't have funding, and you just can't keep someone who's not performing. And that was my first fire. And I think that was really, really hard for me emotionally. 

I was like I couldn't sleep the night before. I had to rehearse many times, what do I actually tell people? And I think that was pretty hard. And then, as you go about it, and then you talk to other people you kind of realize that sometimes you just have to make a decision that's best for the company and to grow, and then go from there. So, I think that was the first time I felt like I was pretty brave and I bite the bullet. 

I think another time is I think it was also just bite the bullet too, even start Million Marker, because I could be pretty comfortable be a researcher, in my comfort zone, wake up whenever I want to, and then write my paper. But now that starting the company actually have so much responsibility. So, I feel like... I also get asked by my interns. We have been bootstrapping with some really wonderful interns. 

My intern asked me like how did I start, and then how do I have the courage? I was like, "Okay. Maybe I was just being naive, but you kind of just bite the bullet and do it, and then you just learn." So, I felt like that was my sort of brave moment brave. Brave moment to actually let someone go and brave moment to start the company. 

Jeremy Au (52:30): 

Wow. That's really true. And I think letting go of someone is never easy and it's never fun, right? And it's a tough thing to do, because you always been working alongside people as a colleague or employee, so you're not responsible for the mission. But when the mission is there, then you're going to make some hard choices and it's totally linked to what you said about choosing to found a startup. 

You're taking on the responsibility of not just yourself as an employee and teammate, but also the mission and the whole team's ability to get there. So, wow. Thank you so much for kind of coming on the show. I want to share the three things that really jumped out at me based on this conversation. 

I think obviously the first part that jumped out of me was you just being raw and sharing about your own fertility journey and how that kick-started the dynamic for you wanting to open up access for testing for environmental exposures, to not just yourself and not just the people like yourself, but to so many other folks of people, mothers, children, people who are in high toxic areas, people who are concerned about their health, and people who are just confused and puzzled by why they're unwell. So, I just think there's amazing line that joins your personal struggle to the struggle of millions of people around the world today. 

I think the second thing I also really enjoyed was I think the very societal discussion about environmental exposure and the toxins and I think the struggles for government and regulators to figure out what is inbounds and what's out of bounds, right? And then, the struggles for manufacturers as they try to figure out what actually is viable versus what is TBD, to be determined if they're viable versus things they know that is unsafe. 

And also, that of individual humans who are making a decision and I think it was fun to actually talk about it like your approach of citizen science, not only obviously helps people of the individual health, but also helps all the parties, helps governments regulate, helps manufacturers substitute healthier approaches, it helps not just this generation of people be healthier, but also every successive generation be healthier about their own environment for not just the safe and not just for the stuff that we are trying to figure out if they are unsafe, but also the stuff that will actually turn out to be beneficial as well. So, I think there's a humongous amount of societal upside from what you're doing. And I really think lots of people really need to rally behind this as much as possible. 

And lastly, thank you so much for sharing about your transition from academia to being a founder. You kind of touched about it in terms of not just being a PhD and frustrations, but also the comfort of system that is it takes time, has very structured budgets that don't really achieve what needs to be done in public health to where you are being a founder and having to make tough decisions as someone who's not just a steward for your own work, but also for the success of the team to achieve the mission that we talked about. And I think that's an amazing set of insights for so many folks that are listening in. 

Jenna Hua (56:01):Thank you. Thank you. And we hope everybody come to use our service, give us suggestions. Let us know how we can help you. 

Jeremy Au (56:07):Yeah. Go to millionmarker.com. All right. Okay. All right. Thank you so much, Jenna, for coming on the show. 

Jenna Hua (56:16):Thank you. Thank you, Jeremy.