If there’s a gene for entrepreneurship, the Wojcicki family has it. Susan Wojcicki is the CEO of YouTube. Her sister Janet is a leading anthropologist and epidemiologist. Their youngest sister Anne is the CEO and co-founder of 23andMe, the world’s first direct-to-consumer genetics testing service. And yes, their mother Esther Wojcicki wrote a book about parenting, which is called How to Raise Successful People. (The key is letting your child lead, she says.)
Perhaps it was the family’s propensity for entrepreneurship that prompted Anne to explore the idea of an FDA-approved genetics testing service for anyone willing to part with $100 and some saliva. The core concept is not, after all, something many entrepreneurs consider. She herself, however, says her idea emerged because she is “obsessed with bringing the consumer voice to healthcare.”
23andMe has certainly given individual people unprecedented access to their own genetic information, data that even a physician couldn’t have garnered only a few years ago. It has also raised new and challenging concerns, however, about the ethics at play when business meets science.
Today, Anne’s company sits squarely at the intersection of science, medicine, technology, and business where it generates plenty of controversy along with $475 million in annual revenue. Here’s the story behind how Anne got 23andMe started, why the company grew, and what your small business can learn from its story.
Who Is Anne Wojcicki?
Born in Palo Alto, California on July 28, 1973, Anne Wojcicki is the youngest of three daughters. Her mother, Esther, was a high school educator, and her father, Stanley, was a physics professor at Stanford University. Anne grew up on the Stanford Campus and took an early interest in ice sports and journalism. Her mother employed a child-rearing philosophy she encapsulated in the mnemonic TRICK—Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, Kindness—when raising her daughters.
“My parents really looked at us always like mini adults,” Anne Wojcicki told CNBC Make It. “The one thing that my parents really did is they gave us a taste of freedom. And they encouraged it. They encouraged us to find our passions, they weren’t controlling.”
TRICK apparently worked. After high school, Anne’s own passions took a turn toward biology. She attended Yale University, a school about as far away from her home on Stanford’s campus as she could get. At Yale, Anne ice skated and played on the varsity women’s ice hockey team, but she also earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Her first job after graduation, however, wasn’t in a science lab. Instead, she started out as a Wall Street investment banker. The life of a healthcare investment analyst didn’t seem to suit her, though, and she quit that field in 2000 to pursue a medical degree. That plan, too, got laid aside as Anne’s interests turned toward biological research.
Creating Celebrity Interest & Bringing the Idea Home
Then in 2006, Anne hit upon an idea that involved business and biology. It came to her at a spit party, which was popular at the time among the glitterati on the West Coast. Scientists had just unlocked the sequence of the human genome in 2003, and celebrities everywhere were sending off their saliva to labs for analysis. Being celebrities, they typically did this at parties.
If celebrities thought this concept was fascinating, ordinary Americans would surely take to it as well. After all, genealogy is the world’s second-most popular hobby (after gardening) and the second-most popular category of websites, according to Time. The entrepreneur who could hand viable genetic data to middle-class Americans would surely build an amazing company.
Anne knew she was on to something, and she had just the right background, knowledge, and personal connections to bring her idea to life. She was about to make one more key connection, too. In May of 2007, Anne married Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The two 33-year-old entrepreneurs tied the knot at a fabulous ceremony in the Bahamas. Sergey was–and remains–one of the richest men in America, worth about $30 billion, so marriage brought Anne more than a companion. Her own network suddenly enlarged as did her access to the resources she needed to get 23andMe off the ground.
Anne’s connections to Google ran deeper than Sergey. Her sister Susan, now CEO of YouTube, was the 16th employee at Google, and in fact, the search engine actually got its start in Susan’s garage. Through her husband and her sister, the world’s greatest data and marketing company now lay open to Anne as she built her own enterprise.
How 23andMe Finally Got Started
Even before her marriage to Sergey, Anne had connected with Linda Avey, a former biology major who was creating research programs at Affymetrix, a gene-testing company in Santa Clara, California. Over a long dinner, the two women planned to start a company together. Linda pulled in her former boss, Paul Cusenza, as the company’s third co-founder and head of operations.
The three entrepreneurs named their new company 23andMe after the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a normal human cell. At $999, the initial cost of the service was, by cutting-edge science standards, quite affordable. (It’s since fallen to $99.) The company would bring in revenue from paying customers on the front end, but the real potential lay in the back end possibilities. After making a sale, 23andMe would own people’s personal information right down to the cellular level.
In an age where data trumps cash, the value of the data such a company possessed would be priceless. The company kicked off with a small bang. It wasn’t long, however, before 23andMe started drawing a lot of attention, both wanted and unwanted.
Invention of the Year (or Pandora’s Box?)
In 2008, Time named 23andMe’s invention of the personal genome test kit “Invention of the Year.” The magazine stated that “We are at the beginning of a personal-genomics revolution that will transform not only how we take care of ourselves but also what we mean by personal information. In the past, only élite researchers had access to their genetic fingerprints, but now personal genotyping is available to anyone who orders the service online and mails in a spit sample. “
The years since Time’s award have ushered in so many innovative biological, technical, and industrial concepts that it’s difficult to remember just how revolutionary the personal genome test kit really was. Since then, more than 26 million people have taken an at-home genetics test kit. For genealogical research, to locate missing family members, or to determine what genetic risks they carry for various diseases and health threats.
These tests raise serious ethical questions.
Controversy Swirls Around 23andMe
What could be wrong with sending a vial of your spit to a company in California to find out if you have an unknown half-sibling or a long-lost cousin? Who could be against learning your risk for certain types of cancers? Shouldn’t you know if a pregnancy is likely to result in a baby who lives with disabilities?
Those questions seem to have obvious answers. But according to ethicists and futurists, 23andMe has the potential to move way beyond assuaging public curiosity and democratizing healthcare. Its mission could represent a serious individual and societal threat.
Some observers raised the alarm early. The same 2008 Time article that honored 23andMe, for example, also noted that federal and state government officials were making early moves to protect privacy and block discrimination based on genomics. The article further stated that some observers were concerned about the effects of genomic testing on families and romantic partnerships.
Anne stuck by her commitment to the company amid the controversy, however, and kept to her mission to make genomic testing available to a much broader population. “We could make great discoveries if we just had more information,” she told Time. “We all carry this information, and if we bring it together and democratize it, we could really change health care.”
Anne conveyed her passion for her project to investors and consumers. Many people felt no fear in trusting 23andMe with their genetic sequence. And yet…
What’s the Concern Around Data, Privacy, and Genetics?
Data is king of the modern world. The company, government, or person with access to the most data also possesses the most power. That’s the main reason questions continued to plague 23andMe.
Is the data truly secure behind the company’s cybersecurity firewall? Could Wojcicki and her shareholders sell the information to the highest bidder? What if the wrong people get access to that much biological information? And perhaps the most frightening question of all … when 79% of Americans say they are worried about the volume of data companies collect on them, why would tens of millions of those very same people send their most intimate information to an impersonal company?
And while it sounds good to let people know if they are at a high genetic risk for contracting a disease, almost none of the people who discover that information actually change any risky behavior. It’s not like knowing their elevated risk for a future illness makes human beings alter their diet, exercise, sleep, or stress management practices. Knowledge, no matter how advanced, never overcomes habit.
“The evidence is increasingly strong that the benefits of direct-to-consumer testing for these kinds of indications are somewhere between small and zero,” said Stanford University lawyer and ethicist Hank Greely, a long-time critic of the company. So is the limited healthcare benefit of 23andMe worth the risk of stockpiling such valuable–and potentially dangerous–information in a single company?
The questions and criticisms kept hitting 23andMe hard and fast. Soon, it was more than ethicists, journalists, and politicians who were hammering away at 23andMe. The FDA got involved, too, and in 2013 the agency fired a warning letter at the personal genetics company. No more tests. All of a sudden, Anne’s business was caught in a regulatory net, and no technological innovation from her Silicon Valley friends could help her escape it. The bureaucracy had her trapped.
Anne’s Marriage Woes Add to Her Professional Challenges
Around the same time that the FDA began strangling her business, the oxygen was also cut off from her marriage. Anne and Sergey divorced in 2015 after eight years together. Their separation and her husband’s alleged affair both landed Anne’s name in the public eye at the worst possible time for 23andMe. Still, Anne was never one to shy away from conflict. She was a Wojicki, after all, and stick-to-it-iveness was woven into her DNA.
Within two years, she had secured FDA approval to go forward with her test kits, plus, she had launched a new relationship with Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez (the two have since split). Anne and her company were back on top.
Questions linger around both 23andMe and the business in which it operates, though. While ordinary Americans seem to enjoy the personal discoveries that genetic testing affords them, conflict swirls around the tests and the data they generate.
The Future of Genetics and the Business of Personal Testing
“Genetic testing is the future of healthcare,” Business Insider proclaimed in early 2019, “but many experts say companies like 23andMe are doing more harm than good.”
Soon, however, 23andMe may seem tame when observers note what’s coming next: new companies are actually considering paying Americans for their DNA. That’s right. You could sell your genome to a medical research company. You might not find out if you’ve got unknown family members using this model, but you will get about $20 for letting someone know the unique details of your cellular makeup.
Undoubtedly, questions around the nexus of science, entrepreneurship, and technology will go on for a long time. For now, though, Anne remains at the forefront of her industry, arguing passionately that what she does gives people a louder voice in healthcare. And it’s unlikely she’s going anywhere. Entrepreneurship, after all, is encoded deep in her genes.
Anne’s Advice on Entrepreneurship
What do Anne’s business stories mean for your small business? Here’s what she has to say about entrepreneurship: