23andMe Is Scaring A Lot Of People By Revealing Their Genetic Makeup…But Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Data?


Fast Company has published an extensive feature story on 23 and Me, the genetics-testing startup headed by Anne Wojcicki. The author Elizabeth Murphy, writing under a pseudonym, makes the article a personal affair, as she describes the 23andMe test results for her adopted Ethiopian daughter.

SPOILER ALERT: The daughter has a 55% of contracting Alzheimer’s Disease between the ages of 55 and 79.

I sympathize, although the dramatic effects of the test results are a little overwrought. Murphy’s daughter might be getting sick in fifty years — does sharing her genomes with other adopted Ethiopian children really count for “extraordinary thoughtful bravery?”

Maybe it does….maybe I’m just skeptical of people who project their own neuroses and ‘first-world problems’ (“Send her to a great school. Send her to music lessons. Reading is so important…” stresses one geneticist to the fretting Ms. Murphy) onto their underprivileged adopted children.

Personal biases aside, the article provides a solid, in-depth look into the mission of 23andMe, which I had never before fully understood. Wojcicki has raised over $126 million since the company’s founding, and has managed to drop 23andMe’s price for genetic testing from $999 to $99 over the past six years.

23 and Me currently has over 400,000 genotyped customers — getting a test is as simple as mailing a vial of spit to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. Sergey Brin, Wojcicki’s ex-husband and current investor, took a test in 2008, and found he had a 30-75% risk of contracting Parkinson’s Disease. Wojcicki says Brin has since adjusted his lifestyle by “drinking coffee and exercising all the time.”

This year has seen an explosion in customers — with over 220,000 signups — as well as a concerted effort to enter the mainstream, with former Gilt Groupe president Andy Page and former Netflix marketing head Neil Rothstein coming on board.

Wojcicki says the idea for the company came from a dinner with Markus Stoffel, a Rockefeller University scientist who had his own plans for a big-data genetics project. Wojcicki, who had left Wall Street after a decade of hedge fund work and abandoned plans for medical school, saw a huge business opportunity. Her board members now insist that 23andMe’s impact could be comparable to Google, and I believe them: if you’re scared of Google holding onto your home address and e-mails, imagine the power of owning your DNA code.

Murphy’s aforementioned “courage” refers to this sharing and aggregating of personal data; much of 23 and Me’s recent success seems to come from the appealing packaging of its highly-complicated product. At one point, Murphy compares the mailed 23andMe test tubes to family-friendly Netflix DVDs.

The reams of health data 23andMe collects is certainly a good thing for scientists looking to analyze and solve entrenched health issues. However, like Murphy’s husband, I’m skeptical of the short-term value of a consumer spitting in a vial for 23andMe, aside from giving otherwise unhealthy people a sharp reminder to exercise and eat better.

The most relevant quote from the article — and the one the author also finds most comforting — comes from Don Taylor, a professor of public policy at Duke — “It’s possible the best thing you can do is burn that damn report and never think of it again … Do not wreck yourself about your 5-year-old getting Alzheimer’s. Worry more about the fact that when she’s a teenager she might be driving around in cars with drunk boys.”

Amen to that.