Business Recoded … Anne Wojcicki is decoding the human genome and recoding the future of healthcare with 23andMe

November 27, 2020

In an exclusive extract from my forthcoming book Business Recoded, meet one of the most inspiring business leaders, shaking up today’s world. She embraces the opportunities of relentless change, the power of disruptive technologies, and the courage to create a better future in her own vision. In the book, I explore the stories of many of the world’s most fascinating leaders right now, and develop 49 codes that help you redefine the future of your business, and yourself.

The Leadership Code of Anne Wojcicki

Anne Wojcicki grew up on the campus of Stanford University, destined she thought to become an academic like her father. Instead she found herself on Wall Street, fascinated by businesses and in particular healthcare. The combination of an academic father, a love of data and analytics, and a passion to reinvent healthcare in a more democratic, accessible and personalised way led to 23andMe.

The human genome was first sequenced in 2003, exciting scientists by the potential of understanding and applying its code. Wojcicki met up with a biology undergraduate Linda Avey who was working on a research program, and together they formed the business in 2005. At the time it cost around $300,000 to sequence an entire human genome (which had fallen from $50 million two years earlier).

23andMe sought to dramatically reduce this cost by using a technology called genotyping, which spot checks specific parts of a gene for mutations know to be linked with certain diseases, instead of a creating a full sequence. They launched the brand to consumers in 2007, with testing packs available by mail order for $999, and later directly from the pharmacy’s shelf.

The revolutionary genetics business combined ideas of new genome technology and crowdsourced funding, into a model that has since reduced the cost of DNA profiling to $99 and want to go much further in the future. For customers, it might be about discovering your ancestors, or exploring your future health prognosis, and in some case, like her ex-husband Sergei Brin, taking radical action.

Regulation was an obvious challenge. Initially there were no rules for such activities, enabling rapid innovation, but also making regulators more cautious. They were concerned about accuracy of tests, and how people might misinterpret information. She saw the regulators as partners rather than adversaries, working together to create a better, safer solution for everyone.

Business model innovation enabled her to continue to reduce costs and make it available to everyday people. She simplified the analytics to make them comprehensible to consumers, and cross-funded individual testing by selling the aggregated data to corporates.

The biggest challenge of all, was that consumers did not understand genetics, or the consequences of knowing their DNA. Explaining 23andMe’s approach in a relevant and human way was key. Ancestory was a quick win, tapping into an established curiosity of people, and then flipping the analysis forwards to predict what health issues the consumer might encounter in their life.

Wojcicki’s vision goes far beyond analytics, with her eyes particularly focused on personalised advice – helping people to interpret results, understand the consequences, and make shifts to a healthier lifestyle. 23andMe is already working with partners to offer diabetes counselling, whilst exploring AI-enabled apps to encourage people to drink more water, and eat certain foods, based on their genetic profiles.

New drugs are another future development. In 2015, 23andMe’s therapeutics group agreed a $300m investment by GSK to explore new drug concepts, in a 4-year exclusive partnership, sharing costs and profits. The deal enabled GSK to access the aggregated data from 23andMe’s databases, where consumers had given their consent. Most do. However, pharma development is notoriously difficult, 86% of drugs fail clinical trials, and are expensive. Personalisation of drugs is even more difficult, but the dream.

In 2020, the therapeutics team had developed a portfolio of research programs across multiple disease areas. They recognised that whilst maintaining ownership of the IP, they needed partners to develop and test the potential drugs. Wojcicki turned to a smaller Spanish pharma company, Almirall, which specialises in skin therapies as her first development partner.  She called it a seminal moment. 23andMe now had a database of over 10 million consumer tests, “a treasure trove” to create the future of healthcare.

© Peter Fisk 2020. Business Recoded is available now.