Of Course 23andMe's Business Plan Has Been to Sell Your Data All Along

By Sarah Zhang on at

Human genome-hawking company 23andMe has announced what reportedly is only the first of ten deals with big biotech companies: US-based health firm Genentech will pay up to $60 million for access to 23andMe's data to study Parkinson's.

Since 23andMe started in 2006 it's convinced 800,000 customers to hand over their DNA, one vial of spit at a time. Personal DNA reports are the consumer-facing side of the business, and in the UK (where the company has recently started airing TV adverts) the test kits sell for £125.

But 23andMe wasn't going to find a big business by simply selling spit kits. Instead, enticing customers to hand over their DNA sequences along with details of their lives in a questionnaire to build a giant database — one that academic researchers and biotech companies alike are, well, salivating over.

Big data has been in 23andMe's DNA from the beginning. The company was founded by Anne Wojcicki, who's married to (though now separated from) Google co-founder Sergei Brin. Last year, Wojcicki told the New York Times that the inspiration for 23andMe came from watching Google: "I remember in the early days of Google, Larry [Page] would say, 'I just want the world's data on my laptop.' I feel the same way about health care. I want the world's data accessible."

While Wojcicki has been open about her larger ambitions for 23andMe, none of that language is apparent in the marketing for its DNA test kits to customers — for sneaky but obvious reasons. Its privacy policy declares that it will share aggregated data to third parties (sell to pharma and biotech companies) for scientific research if customers sign a consent document. Wojcicki told the San Jose Mercury News that 85 to 90 per cent of 23andMe's customers do so.

This particular Genentech deal for Parkinson's is actually limited in scope, though it is a harbinger of things to come. Wojcicki and Brin have been vocal about advocating for Parkinson's research in the past, and this deal involves the whole genome sequencing of 3,000 patients or their immediate relatives. Because Genentech is interested in individual-level information, 23andMe would need additional consent from these 3,000 customers. Genentech will pay $10 million to start and up to $50 million more if benchmarks are met down the line.

This single deal with Genentech, with more pharma company deals to come it seems, already represents a big chunk of 23andMe's revenue. Likening 23andMe to Google is uncomfortably apt. If you're paying a cut rate to have 23andMe sequence your DNA, you are 23andMe's product.