23andMe: Will the personal-genomics company need Big Pharma to make money?

23andMe held its official launch today, as expected, and in the process managed to address a few of the nagging questions that remained after I reviewed its service over the weekend. “Addressed” is definitely the operative word here, though, because firm answers are still in short supply.

For instance, can personal genomics really make money for a startup like 23andMe? (To recap briefly for those joining the show already in progress, the company will scan your genome from a tube of spit you send in, and then post the results on a personal Web page for you to browse for information on your ancestry and disease risks.) The official answer is that no one knows, in part because the field is still remarkably young — just three days old, actually — and partly because 23andMe founders Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki decline to outline their thinking in much detail. For instance, when I spoke to the co-founders earlier today, Wojcicki insisted that “it’s really too early to specify how we might monetize and derive value from the information we’re aggregating. We’ve thought about a lot of different ways to monetize it, but we’re not ready to talk about them.”

Since virtually no one sinks $8.9 million (what 23andMe raised in its first round) into a startup that lacks even an inkling of a business plan, however, it seems safe to say that the company is simply being circumspect. Here’s my best shot at connecting the dots.

To put it bluntly, the real money is likely to lie in selling corporations — specifically, drug companies — access to the aggregate genetic information 23andMe amasses from its customers. During a Webcast this morning, and again in our interview, Avey and Wojcicki emphasized 23andMe’s plans to conduct large-scale genetic-association studies using the genetic-data database their customers will essentially create. (Talk about your ultimate user-generated content.)

Both 23andMe founders, of course, stress that the company won’t disclose personal information, but that’s not really the point. If the company succeeds in attracting the hundreds of thousands of customers Avey and Wojcicki talk about drawing, it will be sitting on one of the largest genetic databases on Earth. And there’s no opting out of any research studies 23andMe wants to conduct at that point, either, since the consent forms to which customers must agree specifically commit their genome-scan results to future research. From that form:

23andMe Sponsored Research: We may analyze your genetic and other voluntarily contributed personal information as part of our scientific research with the purpose of advancing the field of genetics; your account information will never be associated with this research. We may also analyze your genetic and other contributed personal information for the purpose of reviewing and improving our services and creating new features and services. We may ask you questions and you may choose to give us information about yourself through surveys or other features on our website. Contributed personal information might include age, sex, geographic ancestry and diseases or conditions you have, or have experienced. It is entirely within your discretion to provide information or answer survey questions.

Collaborative Research: 23andMe may enter into partnerships with other organizations—non-profit and/or commercial—that conduct scientific research. Prior to embarking on any such projects, 23andMe will establish a research advisory committee to guide such collaborations. 23andMe may grant researchers associated with partner organizations access to our database of genetic and other contributed personal information after such organizations agree to maintain confidentiality consistent with our privacy policy. External researchers will have access to your genetic and other contributed personal information but they will not have access to your account information (e.g. contact and payment information).

In the Webcast and in our interview, Avey and Wojcicki tended to stress the prospect of academic studies over commercial research. For instance, 23andMe is in discussions with foundations that support work on Parkinson’s disease and autism, in hopes of first attracting large numbers of patients to the service, and then using their data to pin down how genetic differences play a role in each disease.

Still, neither academics nor disease-focused foundations are likely to provide the level of funding that could turn a company like 23andMe from an intriguing curiosity into a commercial powerhouse. Who does have that kind of moolah? Big Pharma and Big Biotech, of course. Recall, for instance, that 23andMe is backed not only by Google, but also by Genentech.

What’s more, pharma/biotechs stand to gain tremendous “value” from studies that help pinpoint which patients are most likely to respond to a particular drug, and which ones are likeliest to suffer serious side effects. (For instance, consider the Big Pharma personalized-medicine coalition we wrote about here, and think how much easier its job would be if it could tap a gene database like the one 23andMe envisions building.) It’s almost as if 23andMe and the drug industry were made for one another — as, perhaps, they were. (Wojcicki is a former biotech investor for a San Francisco hedge fund.)

This, of course, helps explain why Avey and Wojcicki are cagey about their business plans, because people might be a little reluctant to sign up for a service that’s effectively going to turn over their genomes to help Big Pharma make more money. I’m not saying they’d be correct about that — this sort of database could conceivable yield some major health benefits in the form of better-targeted drugs — just that public perceptions of the drug industry are bad enough that dwelling on such partnerships could put a damper on 23andMe’s plans.

This sort of strategy still isn’t a slam dunk, of course. With two other personal-genomics services in business or near to it (Navigenics and DeCode Genetics’ DecodeMe), competition for pharma deals could be fierce. What’s more, the genetic databases alone aren’t much good for these sorts of association studies, as researchers will also need to know more about individuals’ “environmental” circumstances — which include anything from their age and lifestyle habits to their medical and family history. If no one answers the surveys intended to elicit this information, the studies, and the dollars behind them, will dry up in a hurry.

A few other items that emerged from today’s discussions:

  • 23andMe’s basic $999 fee covers use of its genome-analysis tools indefinitely — the company doesn’t plan to hit customers up for an annual subscription fee, unlike rival Navigenics. (Except that 23andMe may eventually launch some sort of advanced service that requires a subscription fee.)
  • Avey and Wojcicki argue that charging $999 for their service alone would make 23andMe a going concern. At the same time, though, 23andMe is offering “friends and family” a discount of just 15 percent to get a genome scanned “at cost,” which suggests that the gross margin on that service is really not that great.
  • Regarding the medical utility of the 23andMe scan, Avey says the company urges anyone concerned by a disease-related finding should re-confirm it with a standard genetic test.
  • Apparently 23andMe customers will also have access to a range of additional information that’s not available on the company’s public site. Pointers to genetic counseling will be located there.
  • The company is looking into launching some form of genome-related social networking in the future.
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