Would you share your genes with a stranger? Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki are co-founders of 23andMe, a startup that attempts to consumerize DNA testing and envisions creating social networks based on genetics. Customers pay $999 for a test kit, spit into a tube, mail it to the lab, and get an analysis of nearly 600,000 data points on their genome revealing information about ancestry, individual traits, and potential susceptibility to various diseases. Customers also get access to an online Genetic Explorer where they can surf their own genetic information, share it with others, and get updates about this exploding scientific field. If this doesn't sound like a business plan to you, consider that the company has success in the family, at least by marriage: Wojcicki is the wife of Google cofounder Sergey Brin. Google invested $3.9 million in the startup.
How did the two of you start working together?
Avey: Anne and I both shared this frustration that all this great technology was being developed but it really wasn't being leveraged in a way that was benefiting society as much as it could.
What's your vision for social networking?
Avey: When we talk to people who have a disease or a very interesting trait they're always interested in finding out who else is like them and how they can form communities to share information. We want to build this platform that allows people to connect in ways they haven't been able to before.
Have you seen such communities form yet?
Avey: It's really early and we haven't really put out the ability yet. But just in the early stages, because we can share our accounts with other people, we've been able to connect people who share the same maternal haplogroup for example. People find that a point of conversation: "Gosh I'm from Estonia, where are you from?" Suddenly they start connecting on a very different level.
Do you see social networks forming around diseases or certain traits?
Avey: All of those things. We think our customers are going to come up with their own ideas about how to connect. It's sort of like Facebook where people create applications on top of the platform. There are going to be groups that form that we never thought of. We talked to one guy who had Marfans and he said, I can get word out to my community of people who have Marfans, all sign up for 23andme, form a community, and trigger some research based on our genetics.
I'm sure you've had your own DNA analyzed. Did you discover any surprises?
Wojcicki: I had my whole family genotyped. My sister found out she's a carrier of Bloom's disorder. We have a feature called family inheritance where I can see where I'm genetically identical to my sister and where I'm half similar to my sister. Bloom's is on the gene BLM so I was able to type in BLM and see I'm genetically identical to my sister there. I was able to deduce I'm probably likely to be a carrier.
I have the marker for sprinting. I feel like I lost out on my potential of ever being a sprinter. My husband was heterozygous for it—he has one copy of the fast twitch and I have two copies of the fast twitch. My husband was just stating yesterday that he wants to prove them wrong and go to the Olympics.
And on bitter tasting, I'm heterozygous there and not super sensitive to bitter tastes. I love Brussels sprouts. Some people are very sensitive to bitter taste. But I like all those types of things — Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli rabe. I could eat it all day.
Speaking of your husband, how has it helped to be married to a Google founder?
Wojcicki: It's more helpful that I'm married to somebody who's really supportive of this. He obviously really understands the Internet and change. Most importantly, Google and all of our investors have really been supportive of us taking on something that's a pretty bold initiative. Sergey and Larry [Page, Google co-founder] have always encouraged us to shoot for the moon — if you're going to do something, try to radically transform it. I feel like we have a really supportive investor base and it's nice to have a very supportive spouse.
Must be great to be able to talk back to one of your investors.
Wojcicki: Sergey is not allowed to be part of it from an investment point of view. But he does give us good advice. He comes over here often, and he tries to stay pretty involved.
What sort of social networking would you like to see personally?
Avey: I have this heart condition called Wolff Parkinson White. All of a sudden out of nowhere your heart rate goes up to 190 beats per minute and you feel faint. I've only ever met one other person that's had the same thing. She was in high school and she and I were very close. When you share something in common with someone that affects your life like that you really feel an immediate connection.
What other benefits do you see?
Wojcicki: Part of the thing that really motivated me in getting into this was adverse events. Vioxx got taken off the market because a small percentage of the patients had an adverse event. It's insane to think one drug could work on the entire population. I would love to have cancer patients be able to walk in five years from now and get their tumor genotyped and know they should be taking this kind of drug instead of that one.
An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested it was premature to use consumer DNA testing for making decisions about health and suggested people would better spend their money on a gym membership.
Avey: We totally agree it's premature. This information isn't ready for diagnostic purposes or for necessarily taking any kind of action. We're really more about building a new research paradigm. We want to align ourselves with the research community so our customers feel like they're actively engaged in a process.
When and how will the company start making a profit?
Avey: We're not really talking about our financials openly. But we feel very strongly that we have a great business model and we feel very confident there is a business in this. We hope we will be profitable very soon.
What's the story behind your name?
Wojcicki: I was sitting in the kitchen reading Wikipedia, and there was a very nice picture of the 23 pairs of chromosomes and I started singing "23 and me." My husband started humming the song, I realized that if he thought it was catchy—he's relatively tone deaf—we might be onto something.
Why were so many people spitting into tubes at the World Economic Forum in Davos?
Wojcicki: It was a really interesting group of people and they had a lot of questions. I assume that once these people start getting their data they'll give us a lot of feedback. The "spit party" concept was we had people walking around in lab coats that said "spit coach" on the back. It gave a good levity to Davos. People aren't really used to it — how often do you have to spit in a tube? It requires a bit of coaching because we do require a fair amount of saliva. We had some people late at night who we really had to encourage: Come on, you can do it! Keep spitting!