Blending nature & science

WinVivo’s Sales and Marketing Director Richard Andrus with CEO Shirley Chen

Photograph by Lane Johnson

Shirley Chen is an energetic entrepreneur with not just one, but two advanced degrees—a PhD in biological chemistry and a JD in law. As the co-founder and CEO of WinVivo, a healthcare company that creates natural medicines made with Asian botanicals, the 45-year-old Silicon Valley resident has come a long way from her native home—the remote mountain area near Bama County in southwest China.

This mountainous region, 150 miles from the nearest major city, boasts the highest number of centenarians per capita of any region in the world. The reason? Some researchers credit the crisp, pollution-free mountain air or the down-to-earth lifestyle. Survival in this rural area requires hard work; it’s not uncommon for 90-year-olds to labor in the fields. Others credit the longevity of the Bama people to their diet, which is rich in rice wine, hemp seed, mushrooms, and locally grown vegetables and herbs.

Today Chen’s work draws heavily on her childhood experiences. “My parents are botanists, but for the longest time I tried to stay away from that profession,” says Chen. “I wanted to develop effective chemical drugs against cancer…I was really determined to be a hard-core biomedical scientist and academic.”

After years of working alongside esteemed Nobel Prize-winning researchers and never finding the “magic bullet” against cancer, Chen was frustrated. “I figured that in my lifetime, I’d never be able to personally discover something that was really efficacious for treating a devastating disease like cancer. So I jumped ship; I became an intellectual property lawyer for the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. I thought that maybe my brilliant inventor clients could come up with the successful drugs and then I would be very satisfied. I could help them commercialize them and make them available to the public.”

But Chen soon discovered that most of her clients focused on the development of diagnostic tools to ensure early detection of disease. That didn’t address what Chen saw as the missing link in medicine: prevention. “If I find out I’m 60 percent susceptible to colon cancer, what do I do? Do I go and find a drug that will slow down or prevent the onset of colon cancer? Or do I go and look at my whole life and try to change my lifestyle, my dietary structure? The cancer’s not here yet, but it could be a time bomb,” Chen says.

Through a partnership with biochemist-turned-financier Dr. Brooke Gai and other advisors in the United States and Asia, Chen started WinVivo, a company which combines Eastern remedies with Western science and technology to offer safe, sustainable products that bolster the body’s natural healing abilities.

“So I remembered my calling from my parents: Go back to Mother Nature. This is how people in Asia for thousands of years learned how to maintain their health, by going back to their dietary structure… by incorporating medicinal herbs into their daily life. So naturally you can achieve good health and prevent diseases.”

Through a partnership with biochemist-turned-financier Dr. Brooke Gai and other advisors in the United States and Asia, Chen started WinVivo, a company which combines Eastern remedies with Western science and technology to offer safe, sustainable products that bolster the body’s natural healing abilities. “WinVivo” combines the English word “win” with the Latin term “in vivo” which literally means “the living”—a whole, living organism, as opposed to an “in vitro”-controlled laboratory environment, which involves cells or tissue isolated from the body.

“The gold standard of any health-related product is that it must work in a living human body and be able to address health issues in a safe, long-term, sustainable manner, not just in petri dishes or in vitro lab experiments,” says Chen.

The company’s current products include Botano Guard capsules, derived from anti-inflammatory reishi and shiitake mushrooms in combination with antiviral and antibacterial herbs, which are designed to bolster immunity, and Botano Throat, a natural lozenge that relieves chronic coughs with a blend of botanicals. WinVivo also has three new products set to launch in the coming year. These include a botanical remedy to help allergy sufferers, functional foods targeting obesity and diabetes, and a topical balm to promote the healing of wounds and skin disorders. Developed over a 30-year period by a traditional Chinese doctor, the balm contains a licensed blend of 10 different herbs that have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It is designed not only to help wounds heal faster, but also to stop pain and itching as well. Chen says the balm is safe and effective for simple first-aid uses, such as cuts, insect bites, and rashes, as well as more serious concerns like bedsores, herpes, shingles, venous stasis, and chronic diabetic ulcers.

The botanical ingredients—vegetables, fruits, herbs, and teas—used in WinVivo’s products are both locally sourced and flown in from carefully selected suppliers in Asia. “Our combination of herbs … is based on 3,000 years of ‘clinical trials.’ We base our formulas on how people in Asia use a particular herb in combination with another kind of herb to achieve the best therapeutic efficacy,” says Chen.

“Like a symphony, each botanical plays a critical role… some targeting the root cause and some the symptoms. In Botano Guard, the mushroom essence strengthens the general immunity of the host, while botanicals such as Japanese honeysuckle act like broad-spectrum antimicrobial agents against viruses and bacteria.”

Of the many chapters of her life, Chen feels extremely satisfied with her current work at WinVivo. “What’s the purpose of research? To be able to develop products to make people’s lives better and healthier… Just publishing papers doesn’t really mean much to me,” she says. “WinVivo develops health products based on what is already working in humans and tested in billions of people in Asia over millennia, not the usual Western approach of testing pharmaceuticals in petri dishes, then on animals, then on humans.”

Of course, natural remedies aren’t the only antidotes to stress-filled lives. For those who travel frequently, feel overtaxed, or spend time caring for others but neglecting themselves, Chen encourages a return to balance and a proactive approach to health: Eating more plant-based foods, selecting smaller portion sizes, and engaging in regular, gentle exercise.