Recently, personal genetics testing company 23andMe won a patent on a 2008 application for a system in which prospective parents would tick off desirable traits in sperm or egg doners. It set off a flurry of ominous headlines and stories warning of "designer babies" and "build-a-babies." You could picture Hollywood coffee shops suddenly abuzz with screenwriters tapping out sci-fi thrillers.
The Mountain View-based company 23andMe, whose $99 spit tube kit grants customers a peek into their lineage, traits, and potential health risks, applied for the patent years ago believing it might have potential applications for fertility clinics. But a 23andMe spokesperson insists the company "never pursued the idea and has no plans to do so" and furthermore aren’t looking to license the patent.
But clarifications or none, the feverish blowback to news of a likely impotent patent points to the enormous challenges of making a general public comfortable with 23andMe’s main narrative: Genetic testing will soon, according to experts, be an everyday part of our lives.
23andMe CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki spent six years establishing her company’s scientific credibility before she hired her first-ever marketing head, Neil Rothstein, formerly of Netflix, last fall. "We have to experiment," she says of her new marketing team’s public awareness challenge. "I think back on the marketing of something like TiVo. They were so lucky! Real time TV any time you want it, just save it. Everyone understands that concept. But when you tell people ‘Hey, get your genetics!’ they’re like ‘Why? What is it?’ The learning curve is different."
"People’s frame of reference for genetic testing is Gattaca," says Rothstein, about the chilling 1997 science fiction movie in which Ethan Hawke’s genetically imperfect character defies his eugenics-ruled society. "It’s CSI, it’s House, it’s the Maury Povich Show about finding out the baby’s paternity. They don’t understand that you can find out whether you’re high risk for heart disease or your ancestry information." 23andMe launched its first TV ad campaign in August with a deliberately cheerful, straightforward 60-second spot that pushes this idea of personal empowerment through genetic knowledge.
Armed with expanding market awareness and the more accessible price point of $99 (down from $299 last year and $999 back in 2008 when 23andMe first started providing reports), Wojcicki still has hopes of crossing the million customer threshold by the end of 2013.
"I want a million people," she says in Fast Company’s November cover story. "And after that I want 10 million, then 25 million people. Once you get 25 million people there’s just a huge power of what types of discoveries you can make. Big data is going to make us all healthier. What kinds of diet should certain people be on? Are there things people are doing that makes them really high risk for cancer? There’s a whole group of people who are 100 plus and have no disease. Why?"
Wojcicki is a compelling spokesperson for the power versus the burden of knowing. Does a person for instance want to know if she’s at a future risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or breast cancer? And how does such knowledge for instance infect other areas of a person’s life, from her ability to attain long-term care insurance to having biological children?
23andMe fully realize there are two types of people they will not yet convert. Those fiercely protective of their privacy who believe nothing good can come from sharing their genetic code with a for-profit company, and those who fear the emotional ramifications of a window into their body’s potential vulnerabilities.
"We’ve already done focus groups around the country and yeah there’s a whole bunch of people who don’t want to know," says 23andMe President Andy Page. "God bless ‘em! Fear is always a compelling reason. It’s a valid reason. We have plenty of things to focus on without trying to alleviate people’s fear. Our marketing team’s job is to find people who aren’t afraid to manage their health, who aren’t afraid to know."
The uproar over what continues to be reported as the "designer baby patent" may have just made 23andMe’s job that much harder.