Anne Wojcicki started her professional career at a firm on Wall Street, a job which she found randomly at a job fair. For ten years, she worked on all types of projects within the company, focusing on healthcare research and investing. Soon enough, she began to notice a startling trend within the healthcare industry: it was more prepared to monetize the process of treating illnesses instead of preventing the illness. For example, a patient with diabetes or any other condition may be swarmed by hospitals that want to treat them, since their emphasis was on the services that they could easily monetize. Work spent on prevention was simply not as important because it wasn’t as profitable. Her determination to fix this hole in the industry was integral for the founding of her company 23andMe.
She finally determined that the world needed her company after she saw the huge opportunity stemming from the, at the time, recent sequencing of the human genome. Wojcicki had always been interested in genetics and took her chances. She likes to call it her “first and last investment” because she thought that if her company could empower everyone with their own genetic information, then they could change healthcare. Wojcicki realized that if she could crowdsource this data for research, she could also help cure diseases because of the wealth of new information.
Although 23andMe was not the first company in the industry, it was the first to create and market its product in a way that caught the eye of the average consumer. Since their founding, a plethora of new companies have entered the market, and in many ways they have adopted many of the unique marketing and technological innovations that 23andMe pioneered. When asked about what 23andMe’s biggest differentiator is, Andy Kill, senior communications professional at the company, said, “We’re the only direct-to-consumer genetic test that offers health information, that is our primary differentiator. You don’t need a prescription for 23andMe, unlike all other health-related genetic testing.” While other companies have also been providing ancestry information, 23andMe has also notably incorporated its unique health services to the mix – a service usually reserved for specialized medical DNA testing. He further explained, “We feel strongly about giving people direct access to their genetic information without any gating factors.”
Even with these unique features, they still faced a significant uphill battle like other companies seeking to create and build up their own industries. Although direct-to-consumer DNA testing is much more well known today, when 23andMe launched in 2006, DNA testing was still a novel concept that a select few people knew about and was often more expensive than people were willing to pay for because of the costly process to interpret the results. In response, 23andMe focused on expanding consumer knowledge about DNA testing, and informing people about how they could interpret their results. 23andMe’s initial high cost barrier also began to come down considerably once they developed a more cost efficient testing method, bringing the price down by a factor of 10 from $999 in 2007 to today’s price of $99.
23andMe also employed creative marketing techniques to push its brand and product to the general public. The company made headlines on publications such as The New York Times back in 2008 for its “spit parties”, which were events that celebrities and other influencers were invited to test out their product and spit into 23andMe test tubes. They also worked closely together with large, mainstream consumer events like the World Cup in 2018, where customers could “find” the countries that they could root for through their ancestry- especially good timing as the US team was eliminated and many were left without a team to support. This year, they also conducted a pop up experience where both the media and the everyday person could come to learn about 23andMe and its products- specifically its relatively lesser known health products.
When I asked if they ever considered giving up on their products, Kill replied with an emphatic “No!” explaining, “there have been challenges, of course, but I’ve realized the importance of persistence. We have a mission that we strongly believe in, we have a drive, and we know where we’re going.” Their persistence has shown. They grew from roughly 100,000 customers in 2011 to over 5 million today, a fifty fold increase!
23andMe also has some interesting scientific work that goes on “behind the scenes”. Starting in 2008, the company began to collect valuable survey data about their health and wellness. This data was then compared with de-identified genetic results to try to further enhance genetics research. Four million customers and counting have contributed over 1.5 billion survey questions, leading to 110 peer-reviewed studies.
Even with the landscape of genetic testing constantly shifting, the company’s focus and vision of disrupting healthcare and accelerating research has not changed much from its inception. Kill said, “The goal has always been to disrupt the healthcare system by giving people direct access to their genetic information so that they’ll be incentivized to take better care of themselves and be more proactive about their health”, and I think they’ve achieved that goal quite well. I hear all types of people around me now becoming more interested in their ancestry and the health consequences of their genetic code because of 23andMe, reaching from the elderly to students like myself.
Entrepreneurs like Anne Wojcicki have demystified complex science like genetics down to an easy to follow format, not only benefitting the individuals who are looking for their ancestral roots but also scientists that are using their data to create the next scientific breakthroughs: fighting diseases and opening our eyes to new discoveries that may change the way we see the world. 23andMe’s work has the potential to not only change its industry, but also the face of biotech itself, making it more personable without losing the core intricacies.
If you want to learn more about 23andMe, you can find their website here. To read our last article with Infinite Flight go to this link. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page.
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