23andMe: More than Meets the Eye
23 and Me. Whether you have been a loyal user since its founding almost thirteen years ago, or if you are somebody for whom 23andMe kind of rings a bell, or if you don’t have a clue about what you’re reading right now, Iron Edge VC wants you to know more. We think this is a company that is easy to get excited about.
Founded in 2006 and based in Mountain View, California, 23andMe is a personal genomics and biotechnology company. As you may remember from middle school science classes, normal human cells have 23 pairs of chromosomes. It is from this biological fact that the company derives its name. They were the first to offer autosomal DNA testing as a means of determining ancestry, and that method has since become the standard practice of all major companies in that industry. Its saliva-based direct-to-consumer genetic testing business was named “Invention of the Year” by Time magazine in 2008.
The way it works is very simple, even as it strains good manners by asking its customers to spit a lot. The starter kits are available from a wide array of online and brick-and-mortar retailers, as well as from 23andMe’s own website. The user is instructed to fill a vial with saliva, then register the vial on the website, and then mail it in with a prepaid envelope. In three to five weeks, the user’s report is available on the password-protected section of the website.
Then come the amazing stories and surprises. People discover ancestors of a completely different race. Adoptees find biological siblings who live just across town. Amateur vocalists learn that they had descended from a world-famous opera performer. As the user base continues to expand, the stories become much cooler and more plentiful.
Separate from the idea of learning so much about oneself is the very serious (often life-saving) area of developing a detailed health profile. One user wanted to see if she had a predisposition for Alzheimer’s. She didn’t, but her report showed an increased risk of emphysema. Another solved her stomach pain issues after she learned of a lactose intolerance inclination. And one very fortunate user discovered a previously unknown Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and a BRCA1 genetic mutation, which puts patients in a higher risk category for breast and / or ovarian cancer. The blood test that followed came out positive, and early detection spared the patient’s life.
Also along medical lines, 23andMe released some blockbuster news last week.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disease, with one in three people at risk. On March 11, the company told CNBC it is upgrading its $99 and up at-home DNA test to include a report on diabetes, with an explanation on both the genetic and lifestyle factors that influence who’s likely to get the disease in their lifetimes. This development has a strong likelihood of expanding 23andMe’s customer base by the millions, and this may be just the beginning. As use test cases become more varied and more established, the science behind 23andMe might complete the propulsion of this company from the neat-o novelty it was a few years ago to an institution that safeguards the well-being of civilization.
The rapidly ascending valuation of this private company is intriguing… from $45 million in 2007 to $1.1 billion in 2015 to today’s estimated $2.5 billion. This certainly looks like an enterprise on the move! We at Iron Edge VC would love to hear from you if you would like to learn more about 23andMe.