Today, 23andMe announced what Forbes reports is only the first of 10 deals with big biotech companies: Genentech will pay up to $US60 million for access to 23andMe’s data to study Parkinson’s. You think 23andMe was about selling fun DNA spit tests for $US99 a pop? Nope, it’s been about selling your data all along.
Since 23andMe started in 2006, it’s convinced 800,000 customers to hand over their DNA, one vial of spit at a time. Personal DNA reports are the consumer-facing side of the business, and that’s the one we’re most familiar with. It all seems friendly and fun with a candy-coloured logo and quirky reports that include the genetic variant for asparagus pee.
But 23andMe wasn’t going to find a big business by selling spit kits at the cut rate of $US99. Instead, it’s always been about enticing customers to hand over their DNA sequences along with details of their lives in a questionnaire to build a giant database — one that academic researchers and biotech companies alike are, well, salivating over.
Big data has — excuse the metaphor — been in 23andMe’s DNA from the beginning. The company was founded by Anne Wojcicki, who’s married to (though now separated from) Google co-founder Sergei Brin. Last year, Wojcicki told the New York Times that the inspiration for 23andMe came from watching Google: “I remember in the early days of Google, Larry [Page] would say, ‘I just want the world’s data on my laptop.’ I feel the same way about health care. I want the world’s data accessible.”
This particular Genentech deal for Parkinson’s is actually limited in scope, though it is a harbinger of things to come. Wojcicki and Brin have been vocal about advocating for Parkinson’s research in the past, according to Forbes, and this deal involves the whole genome sequencing of 3000 patients or their immediate relatives. Because Genentech is interested in individual-level information, 23andMe would need additional consent from these 3000 customers. Genentech will pay $US10 million to start and up to $US50 million more if benchmarks are met down the line.
This single deal with Genentech, with more pharma company deals to come it seems, already represents a big chunk of 23andMe’s revenue. Likening 23andMe to Google is uncomfortably apt. If you’re paying a cut rate to have 23andMe sequence your DNA, you are 23andMe’s product.