What Is uBiome?

By Derek Lakin
HighYa Staff Published on: Jul 18, 2017

As a genetics company, uBiome offers two sequencing-based microbiome screening tests that promise to provide customers with actionable insight they can use to understand and improve their gut health.

Specifically, the website tells us that you’ll be able to discover the bacteria that live in and on your body (collectively referred to as the ‘microbiome’), and whether these microorganisms are beneficial or pathogenic—such as those associated with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

From there, you’ll learn how diet and lifestyle factors can affect these microorganisms and potentially help you feel better.

Together, uBiome’s claim that they’re “pioneering a new era of microbiome-based precision medicine" seems warranted. But does this necessarily mean the price you pay will deliver the value you expect? Stick with us, and we'll help you explore important factors like these.

What Importance Does Your Microbiome Play?

The microbiome is defined as “the microorganisms in a particular environment (the body as a whole or a part of the body),” including their combined genetic material.

According to University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center, like any other community on earth, these microorganisms respond to their surroundings and continuously shift throughout our lifetime. But if these populations shift too far in one direction, leading to an excessive number of “bad” microorganisms, they report it can result in a whole host of conditions; from acne and asthma to eczema and obesity.

From a gut health perspective, this is the basic approach behind probiotics. These supplements contain specific bacteria strains, which are typically chosen based on their ability to repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria and potentially address digestion-related issues.

Now, how does uBiome fit into this picture?

SmartGut vs. Explorer: How Do the uBiome Tests Work?

uBiome currently offers two different consumer-level screening services:

What Are the Details Behind uBiome’s SmartGut Test?

Available only in the U.S., SmartGut is designed for patients experiencing chronic gut conditions or those who are working with their physician to optimize their gut microbiome.

Speaking of which, the test must be ordered by your doctor, and involves an easy-to-use collection kit that requires just enough fecal matter to tint a cotton swab. Then, this is cleanly returned in a pre-paid mailer.

uBiome SmartGut Sample Collection KitAccording to their website, uBiome’s SmartGut Collection Kit includes everything you’ll need to obtain a sample, which will be sent back to the company using a pre-paid label. Image credit: uBiome, Inc.

Once received by the company’s CLIA-certified and CAP-accredited lab, they’ll use their high-throughput DNA sequencing technology to measure your bacterial diversity and identify specific pathogens that could be making you feel less-than-optimal. This includes microorganisms associated with conditions like IBS, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and even sore throat.

Their Microbiome Diversity Score will also let you know “how your microbiome compares to healthy participants from the world’s largest microbiome research dataset,” as well as how your lifestyle and diet impact these microorganisms.

With these details in mind, it’s important to point out the uBiome site emphasizes that SmartGut does not represent “a diagnosis without the evaluation of your symptoms by a medical professional” and that it’s “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

What About the uBiome Explorer Test?

Comparatively, Explorer is available to residents of 202 countries and was designed “for citizen scientists and academic researchers to conduct experiments relating to the microbiome.”

Customers have the opportunity to take samples from up to five different sites, including the nose, skin, mouth, genitalia (both male and female), as well as the gut. Just swab across the corresponding site, send the kit back to uBiome, and you’ll receive results within 4-6 weeks.

Instead of a detailed report like with the SmartGut screen, Explorer will provide access to online interactive tools (e.g. graphs and charts) that can help you understand how your bacteria compare to others, as well as the ability to track your bacteria over time (should you decide to order more than one test):

  • Gut Explorer – A one-time test for curious beginners.
  • Time Lapse Explorer – A three-time sequence that could be handy for tracking levels before, during, and after a diet or other lifestyle change.
  • Five Site Explorer – Provides access to five sample sites, including gut, mouth, nose, genitals, and skin.

Regardless of which screen you choose, uBiome indicates your data is protected by “multiple layers of encryption and the highest levels of computer security. You control your data, and can choose whether or not you consent to having your data be anonymized and aggregated into our research studies.”

How Much Does a uBiome Screen Cost?

According to the FAQ on uBiome’s website, their SmartGut test is currently only available to residents of the U.S. through their Pilot program. While this means you must have health insurance in order to participate, they note that “any costs not covered by your insurance company will be covered by uBiome.” In other words, it’s free while this program is operational.

However, their Explorer tests are priced as follows:

  • Gut Explorer: One-time purchase $89, $71.20 as monthly subscription
  • Time Lapse Explore: One-time purchase $199
  • Five Site Explorer: One-time purchase $399, $319.20 as monthly subscription

Refunds aren’t available on uBiome’s tests, although customer service can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

What Can We Learn From uBiome Reviews?

We found two uBiome customer reviews on Amazon at the time of our research, who had given the genetic screening service an average rating of three stars. The five-star reviewer stated that they were excited to see their lifestyle changes reflected in their screening, while the one-star reviewer wasn’t satisfied with the requirement to share their information, or their overall results.

Back in 2015, Discover Magazine’s Sarah Scoles ordered a uBiome SmartGut screen and concluded:

“I didn’t pay $89 for my sample analysis kit. But if I had, I would have been disappointed. And if I had paid $399 for the five-site kit, I would have been even more so. The amount of readily available information provided little enlightenment about what my internal lurkers meant about me.

While we know the microbiome is important (so important!), we’re just beginning our research into the specifics. And big data — your data — is the way to learn what a high firmicute to bacteriodete ratio means for health. Given that, it would be more appropriate for uBiome to pay you to swab your toilet paper than for you to give them $90 so you can learn what they can’t yet tell you.”

More recently, TechnologyReview.com interviewed Rob Knight, a microbiome researcher, professor at the University of California, San Diego, and co-founder of the American Gut project, who made a similar statement, noting "The enthusiasm of their manufacturers simply goes well beyond where the science is right now."

In other words, while these types of tests might engage us in science and help us learn more about our body, the actionable value they provided seems to currently be limited.

As far as the company, uBiome was founded in October 2012 by Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte, who both worked at the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. Then, in 2013, the company went on to raise nearly $363K in a 2013 Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.

Since that time, uBiome has received a variety of awards, including the Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Healthcare by Fast Company, as well as CNN 10: Startups To Watch.

Given uBiome’s early success, has this created any competition in the marketplace?

uBiome vs. Other Microbiome Sampling Companies

While there weren’t a whole lot of microbiome screening companies competing with uBiome at the time of our research, there were several other popular options. These included:

Company Price Screening Services / Information Provided
uBiome Free - $399 Gut; Exterior (nose, skin, mouth, genitalia) - Bacterial diversity, microorganisms related to specific conditions
Thryve $99 Gut – Diet and supplement recommendations, learn about probiotic strains, how to improve leaky gut
Map My Gut £250 Gut bacteria classification and what they can mean for health
DexaFit Microbiome Gut Analysis (powered by uBiome) $89 Gut microorganism identification and symptoms they can cause
DayTwo.com $299 Gut - Personalized nutrition and sugar response predictions; app access

How can you choose the right option?

Each of these seemed to come with meaningfully different prices, along with a variety of information contained in their reports. So, if price is your most important factor, a free SmartGut screen through uBiome might be difficult to beat, although you’ll need to have health insurance to qualify.

On the other hand, if you’re diabetic, the DayTwo.com screen might be ideal, while those specifically interested in probiotics or supplement recommendations might be better served by Thryve.

Let’s carry these thoughts over to the final section as we wrap things up.

What’s the Bottom Line About uBiome?

Returning to the TechnologyReview article cited earlier, they emphasize “there’s a lot we don’t know about the microbiome and its connection to our health.”

As a result, American Gut project co-founder Rob Knight acknowledges that "what people can realistically expect to learn from these new commercial tests is more along the lines of a snapshot of how a participant's microbiome compares to others with different diets, ages, and lifestyles, or in different places around the world."

Given these important factors, only you—in conjunction with a healthcare professional, of course—can decide if the “cool” factor behind a gut microbiome screen like uBiome is worth the time and overall expense. But if you’re suffering from a more severe or chronic condition, it just might provide the information you need to find some relief.

See Also: Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Testing Pros & Cons: Is It Right for You?

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17 Consumer Reviews for uBiome

Average Consumer Rating: 1.2
Rating Snapshot:
5 star: 1 4 star: 0 3 star: 0 2 star: 0 1 star:  16
Bottom Line: 6% would recommend it to a friend
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  • 5 out 7 people found this review helpful

    No results

    I ordered the smart gut kit in November, hoping it would give me some insight into chronic gut issues. They billed my insurance, and my insurance covered part of the cost. I sent uBiome the check that my insurance provided. Then I waited, and waited.

    I emailed at the end of January, hoping to get results to discuss at my doctor's appointment. They told me they were unable to get any results from the sample I sent and that they would send a replacement kit. A month went by, no kit. I emailed, no reply.

    Another month has gone by, and I have no confidence that I will ever hear from them again. I am considering telling my insurance company that they should try to recover their money, as no results have been provided. Very disappointing.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 10 out 11 people found this review helpful

    uBiome seems to have scammed me

    • New York,
    • Mar 26, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    First, this company claims the gut test they want to send me is FREE (fine print and their request to get my insurance company info suggested otherwise, but I took a chance, figuring it said in writing it was "free" so I'd have a good case if I had to go after them). About four months later I learn they charged my insurance company nearly $2000, which was shy of a few hundred of what they asked. So they have the nerve to APPEAL and somehow WIN more money. First, they said they were "out of network" yet magically they became "in network," and the insurance rep I spoke to had no way to explain how they did that.

    I would almost be "ok" with their collecting from my insurance company as it did say in the fine print they could "try" to collect from the insurance company, BUT I NEVER RECEIVED MY RESULTS! I sent at least 1/2 dozen emails, and they give automated replies they are "looking into" or will get back to me. When they reply, it's usually a formed letter type response not fully applicable to my question and only a "run-around," with STILL no results.

    They took my money. They gave no results. They also promised me a $20 gift card (whoop-de-doo), which only came after I wrote and complained many, many times and said I would report them. Maybe my results will magically appear in my inbox one of these days, maybe they won't. Sure doesn't seem as if they will. I'd be VERY wary of using this firm.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 7 out 8 people found this review helpful

    Patient assistance program

    • California,
    • Mar 17, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    Just a heads up - uBiome has a patient assistance program for free testing, but it is apparently a scam. If they are unable to bill your insurance company they never send the kit. They just give you the runaround and excuses until you give up asking why they didn't send the kit.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 10 out 12 people found this review helpful

    Blatant insurance fraud

    The test reports are interesting, but the insurance fraud they are running is over the top. My husband ordered a kit, received it...and never returned it. Our insurance was billed $2900, paid $1020, for labs that were never done. In my case, they claim they have a new product (Explorer) and without my permission went back and rebilled for kits from 2016 and 2017. UnitedHealthCare paid both. Who would want info that old? If you know there's fraud, and you don't report it, you are complicit. I'm trying to get them to remove our insurance info and stop sending kits. I got another one yesterday I didn't order. I'm going after Dr. Susan Zneimer who is listed on the report.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 5 out 6 people found this review helpful

    Beware!

    I originally ordered a kit in July of 2017, but my sample was never received by uBiome. After a few emails, a new kit was mailed. Fast forward three months later, I'm getting invoices from them asking for a check that my insurance mailed me. Today my HSA reimbursed me for almost $1000, which would have been my out of pocket costs, cleaning out my health savings for a year. Don't screw up your insurance for the entire year for a test that tells you very little about your health because they tell you it's free. It's not.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 12 out 13 people found this review helpful

    Ripping off our healthcare!

    My experience with the company was fine. What I really really do not like is seeing a $2970 service charge to Blue Cross Blue Shield. No charge to me, but come on people, this is a TOTAL health care scam. I think healthcare system should do an investigation.

    Not cool!

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 7 out 9 people found this review helpful

    I had a great experience

    I had a great experience. So I saw an ad for a free SmartGut test and since I have ulcerative colitis, I would love to do it. I did the test, got the results, and they attempted to charge my insurance. My insurance denied it and as promised, uBiome ate the cost.

    A few months later, uBiome emailed me about an upgraded test. I did it, and this time my insurance did pay them $2900. I got the results but they didn't seem different from the first test, but I did get to see changes over time.

    Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

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  • 5 out 6 people found this review helpful

    Never got product after insurance was charged

    • Arkansas,
    • Feb 1, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    This horrible company charged my insurance $2,900 for services. I performed the first of several tests and sent it in to be processed. I learned later, after trying to access results, that my kit had been registered to the wrong email. I tried to get in contact with their customer service, but they would not respond. I tried repeatedly, over and over again, to get them to respond. No response.

    I tried calling them. They would say their customer service line was busy and someone would take my number to be called back later. No one called back. I called multiple times over a few weeks. Nothing. I got more aggressive when I called. Still nothing. I threatened legal action. It has been a month since I've been trying to get this resolved and I have gotten exactly zero data from my $2900. This is fraud.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 19 out 20 people found this review helpful

    Avoid this company

    • Connecticut,
    • Jan 30, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    I wish I had never made contact with this company. I sent my original sample in May 2017. I noted the tracking number on the package and followed it online all the way to California. Tracking noted that it was delivered to the front desk on May 26th.

    There was no status change on my account or anything that indicated they'd received it and were processing it. I finally emailed and asked the status of my sample. They replied that they never received it. I provided them with the tracking number to show that the package had, indeed, been received by someone there. The response was then that it must have gotten lost somehow. Wonderful. This is how they handle patient DNA samples? It's very careless, to say the least. And the fact that no one there seemed particularly concerned about it didn't fill me with much confidence.

    They sent another test kit. I returned it, and that one was delivered to them on July 12th. I emailed two weeks later asking if they could confirm they got it. No response. I emailed again on September 15th. On September 19th, FINALLY, I get an automated response saying, "We just received your sample." It was delivered to them 7/12. But they "just received it" on 9/19. Super.

    Included in that automated email was this line, "Your samples...are now safely awaiting processing in our lab." Which means, by default, that the samples they lost are unsafely waiting who knows what where.

    Now, somewhere throughout this process, they sent me an automated thing asking if I'd be interested in trying SmartJane. They ended up sending me a test kit. But I decided I did not want to go through all of this again with them and threw the kit away.

    So what do they do?? They keep sending me more kits! Stop sending me kits!

    On October 25th I got my test results, five months after I sent my first sample. I had hoped to receive these results in time for my gastroenterologist to look at them. But my appointment with him had already come and gone at that point.

    Unfortunately, they've popped into my life again. I am now getting an "invoice" email from them saying that my insurance company sent me a check and they want it. They have the date of service listed as 1/1/2018. I replied that I had never received a check from my insurance company. I got a response saying, "If you haven’t received this check due to a change in address or if the check has expired, please contact your insurance carrier..."

    No, my address has not changed. No, I have not received a check, so this non-existent check could not have expired. And what does the 1/1/2018 date of service refer to? I then got a response that this would be forwarded to their billing department.

    In the meantime, they are harassing me daily with the "you are out of network, send us the check" email. Daily. And yet I have heard nothing from billing.

    In short, this company is a mess. They mishandle samples, and they are extremely slow to respond (if at all). Every time you do get a response, it is from a new person so that none of them has any idea what's going on. And obviously, billing doesn't have their act together either.

    uBiome, stop sending me SmartJane kits and stop sending me harassing emails! If you want the account settled, have a real human being contact me who knows what they're doing. I would like to break up with you, but I can't seem to get rid of you!

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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    • Mar 16, 2018

      heather

      Ahh, I am so glad I checked the online reviews before entering any personal information into their system. Have you contacted your Attorney General or Consumer Affairs? I think that the Attorney General would be the best starting place because they will direct you to which government body to file a complaint with if they're not the correct one. This sounds so crazy, I wish you lots of luck!

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  • 5 out 6 people found this review helpful

    Customer support is terrible

    • San Francisco, CA,
    • Jan 29, 2018
    • Verified Reviewer

    I have had a great experience with a product, but when I stumbled on a couple of issues while ordering new kits, Customer Support turned out to be extremely unresponsive. First, you receive a funny automated response that your question will be reviewed. Then a Customer Service specialist replies with a note that somebody else will reply to my question soon. Then a couple of weeks pass and nothing.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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  • 8 out 9 people found this review helpful

    Terrible customer service and no results yet

    About two months ago, we sent a sample to uBiome to find out whether my partner, who is being treated with checkpoint inhibitors for cancer, has sufficient quantities of the bacteria that may mediate responsiveness to this immunotherapy treatment. It has been impossible to communicate with this company. They have no phone number, and one's emails are answered with weeks of delay. Although our doctor agreed to review the results with us and see what he could do with them, we did not request the kit through him, nor was it clear to us how to do that. I recommend finding a different company.

    Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this to a friend

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