Googling your DNA just got cheaper
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company is just one of many that, with a bit of saliva, can help you Google your DNA. But 23andMe has drawn more attention than most because co-founder Anne Wojcicki is married to Sergey Brin, who helped launch Google. The search giant is one of 23andMe's investors.
Wojcicki and fellow co-founder Linda Avey credit the plunging cost of genetic testing technology for the ability to charge $399 for a genome scan. "We continue to see these prices drop because of advances in technologies," Avey said.
Few consumers can shell out $1,000 or more to find out which diseases or traits lurk in their genes. The company won't say how many people have used its service, but acknowledge that most customers are either "very curious" or technophiles.
Google invested $3.9 million in 23andMe, which Wojcicki, a former healthcare industry analyst, and Avey, a biopharmaceutical industry veteran, started in 2006. Brin and Wojcicki met after her sister rented her garage to him and Larry Page as office space for their then-budding search engine.
Brin provided $2.6 million in interim debt financing to 23andMe. That loan was repaid as part of the company's financing. The investment is in line with other Google investments geared to organizing the world's information but has drawn criticism over Brin's family connection to the company. Other investors in 23andMe include New Enterprise Associates and Genentech.
In the name, 23 refers to the number of pairs of chromosomes in the human body. The company hopes that by encouraging people to learn about their genetic information, it can help propel understanding of the human genome, bring the promise of personalized medicine and accelerate the discovery of new drugs.
For Wojcicki, 23andMe is a personal and social mission. She says she was troubled that healthcare had not moved into the digital age, which has sped innovation in so many other fields. "Healthcare is so dramatically behind on the Internet," she said. Personalized medicine was something that was always "five years away."
"Fundamentally I don't think healthcare was making any progress," she said. "I'm related to the Google gang and I hear them say all the time, 'If there is a problem, fix it.' So I complained, and complained and complained, and Larry finally said to me, 'Shut up and do something about it.' "
The company is launching some online social networking features to create a place for users to learn about and share the insights they glean from their DNA. It also is working on a project with the Parkinson's Institute to use the Internet to advance disease research.
The company has 45 employees, including population geneticists, molecular biologists, cell biologists and specialists with backgrounds in biostatics and bioinformatics.
It recently received a license that allows the company to continue to do business in California. A controversy erupted in June when the California Department of Public Health sent letters to 23andMe and other genetic testing services telling them they could not solicit customers in California without obtaining a license from the state to operate as a laboratory. State and federal regulators are keeping a close eye on these services -- oversight that 23andMe says it welcomes.
-- Jessica Guynn
Photos: Anne Wojcicki, top left, and Linda Avey. Credits: 23andMe