(UPDATED: See below.)
Navigenics, a new personal genetics startup with some serious backing, threw back the curtain over the weekend by unveiling its Web site. The Redwood Shores, Calif., startup says it aims to provide individuals with their genetic profiles and then to “arm” them with ways to improve their future heath.
This is very similar to what 23andMe, a similar startup backed by Google and Genentech (see our coverage here and here), intends to do. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Navigenics has some influential supporters of its own, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital. KP’s uber-VC John Doerr also has a seat on its board. KP, of course, was an early backer of Google, whose co-founder Sergey Brin just happens to be married to 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki.
Navigenics isn’t anywhere near so shy as 23andMe, which remains largely mum despite some fairly significant disclosures by its investors. From the Navigenics Web site:
Thanks to advances in genomic research, medicine and technology, we can now determine your genetic predisposition for certain diseases, perhaps years or decades before they develop. These insights enable you to take action before a disorder strikes to delay or even prevent the illness altogether.
In other words, Navigenics essentially intends to get people to have their genomes scanned in a rough-and-ready fashion — in other words, they’ll scan your genes with chips that look for single-letter variations in the genetic code, instead of laboriously reading it out letter by letter — and then to match up what they find with the latest information on the diseases to which your genes might predispose you. Navigenics so far seems focused on the question of what your genes might say about disease, whereas 23andMe is apparently also interested in helping people trace their genealogy and creating social networks where they can compare and contrast their genetics.
Needless to say, the privacy implications of all this activity are fairly profound, and neither company has come close to explaining exactly how it plans to protect users’ privacy. That’s a particular concern given that existing online services can be forced to divulge your personal information to the government without even informing you of the fact.
It’s also not clear how long this will take or what it will cost. According to a video on its site, Navigenics says will obtain your genetic information via a “saliva collection kit” — i.e., you’ll spit into a cup and mail it to the company, which will scan it for your genetic details and then presumably post them online where you can look at them. Navigenics also plans to provide users with information that can help them make the best of their genetic predispositions, although exactly how that will work in practice remains to be seen.
At the very least, though, it’s clear Navigenics has come loaded for bear. In addition to the blue-chip VC backing — there’s no information on their Web site as to how much money the company has raised, and so far we haven’t heard back from anyone involved with the company — Navigenics boasts some heavy hitters among its board members, co-founders and partners. For instance, David Brailer, until recently the Bush administration’s point man on electronic health records and more recently chairman of Health Evolution Partners, a private-equity fund that invests in healthcare, sits on the board. So do the company’s co-founders, Dietrich Stephan, a director at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, and David Agus, a protein-biomarker researcher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Hospital in Los Angeles. The company has also lined up some important advisors, including the politically connected Greg Simon, now president of Michael Milken’s FasterCures organization and previously Al Gore’s chief domestic policy adviser.
Navigenics also boasts close ties to Affymetrix, the big gene-chip maker — Affy’s former associate general counsel Stephen Moore will be Navigenics’ general counsel, and Affy founder Stephen Fodor appears in a video on Navigenics’ site, so it’s not too difficult to conclude that the company will be using Affy’s gene chips to sift users’ genetic info. (23andMe, by contrast, was recently reported to have signed a deal with Affy competitor Illumina.) The company has also hired David Ansley, former science editor at Consumer Reports, to run “editorial” (presumably the section providing scientific info about genetic links to disease that customers will be anxious to find), and Amy DuRoss, late of California’s Proposition 71 stem-cell initiative and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, as head of policy and “business affairs.” (DuRoss is also apparently Navigenics’ spokeswoman.) The company has also hired Colleen Yoo, formerly e-business director for Blue Shield of California and director of product management for WebMD, as head of product management.
Which is not to say the company doesn’t have a few discordant notes, starting with CEO Mari Baker, recently a KP “executive in residence” and before that president of BabyCenter, a J&J-owned Web site for parents, and a vice president at Intuit. On the other hand, if 23andMe has anywhere near this much depth among its executive team and backers, we have yet to hear about it. Yes, 23andMe has backing from Google and Genentech, not to mention VC firms Mohr Davidow Ventures and New Enterprise Associates, and Esther Dyson — one of the ten volunteers for George Church’s Personal Genome Project, by the way — is on the board. But we haven’t heard much else about what 23andMe has lined up yet.
UPDATE: We’re still waiting for comment from Navigenics, although we’re promised something later this week. That’s something of an eternity in Internet time, but check back by Thursday or so, as I’ll post whatever we learn from them. Meanwhile, Navigenics board member Dana Mead, a partner at KP, tells us by email that Navigenics is doing something “different” from 23andMe and that he sees the company as “more complimentary than competitive” to 23andMe. It will be interesting to see how they pull that off, even assuming Mead wasn’t just suggesting that Navigenics plans on being exceedingly polite where 23andMe is concerned.