Google, Genentech fund personal-genetics startup 23andMe

(UPDATED: see below.) 23andMe, a stealthy Mountain View, Calif., “personal genetics” startup, has raised a first round of funding from some heavy hitters — Google, Genentech and two blue-chip VC firms, Mohr Davidow Ventures and New Enterprise Associates.

That’s some significant megatonnage for a low-profile and potentially controversial startup, although it all starts to make sense once you realize that Google co-founder Sergey Brin is newly married to 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki. In addition, Genentech CEO Art Levinson sits on Google’s board. Those insider ties triggered disclosure requirements for Google, which revealed its new $3.9 million stake in 23andMe earlier this afternoon in an SEC filing. Among other things, the financing allowed 23andMe to pay back $2.6 million it had previously borrowed from Brin.

23andMe didn’t disclose the overall size of the round, although I’m told it’s in the vicinity of $10 million. None of the four named investors officially took a lead role in the financing, according to Michael Goldberg, a Mohr Davidow partner.

According to the company’s bare-bones release, 23andMe aims to help people “access, explore and better understand” their own genetic profiles via the latest DNA-analysis techniques and Web-based software tools. (The company’s name is a play on the 23 pairs of chromosomes that carry each individual’s DNA.) That service isn’t likely to launch until the end of this year, and in the meantime, 23andMe officials aren’t talking.

Which is not to say that 23andMe’s business is a total mystery. The company’s Web site suggests that it will allow people to analyze their own genomes and then share or compare that information via social networks of some sort (emphasis added):

Even though your body contains trillions of copies of your genome, you’ve likely never read any of it. Our goal is to connect you to the 23 paired volumes of your own genetic blueprint (plus your mitochondrial DNA), bringing you personal insight into ancestry, genealogy, and inherited traits. By connecting you to others, we can also help put your genome into the larger context of human commonality and diversity.

Toward this goal, we are building on recent advances in DNA analysis technologies to enable broad, secure, and private access to trustworthy and accurate individual genetic information. Combined with educational and scientific resources with which to interpret and understand it, your genome will soon become personal in a whole new way.

How this will work in practice isn’t entirely clear, although there are hints scattered here and there. Maverick tech entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, for instance, wrote on his blog in January that 23andMe will take in saliva samples through the mail, then subject them to a fast and relatively inexpensive genetic analysis. That data, he suggested, would go into a database that people could search for both personal and scientific reasons — a vision that, if true, would also help explain Google’s involvement, given the company’s oft-stated desire to index all of human knowledge. (An individual familiar with 23andMe told me that Varsavsky’s description sounds “well informed.”)

Mohr Davidow’s Goldberg explains that 23andMe hopes to stand at the intersection of “personalized medicine” and consumer-driven healthcare by offering individuals the tools they need to make medical decisions based on their genetic makeup. “Consumers have to become educated,” he says. “They have to understand that genetics isn’t scary science, that it’s all about what makes me who I am.”

Of course, no one knows at this point how people might react to the notion of storing — much less sharing — their genetic information online. Goldberg emphasized that 23andMe is “extraordinarily committed” to maintaining user privacy. It also can’t hurt that Congress appears poised to ban genetic discrimination with respect to employment and health insurance, which could do a lot to alleviate peoples’ anxiety about hanging out their genetic laundry online.

UPDATE: Turns out Martin Varsavsky is also a 23andMe investor. At least, that’s what he says on his blog. No wonder he’s “well informed.”

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Within the next few years, it should become fairly easy and inexpensive to get a rough-and-ready readout of your own genetic code, one that you can scan for information on which diseases you’re most likely to contract, which drugs will help you the most, and ultimately even how your children might turn out. In other words, a brave new world of genetic transparency is on its way, one that promises to empower individuals to an extent that’s still difficult to grasp. (For some preliminary thoughts on that subject, see here, here and here.) [...]