We all want to be treated as individuals, especially where something as personal as healthcare is concerned. We want our healthcare providers - and people who provide nutrition, fitness, and health advice in general - to know us.
Unfortunately, they can't. Not really.
But they will.
I'm terrible at predicting the future (in the 80s I thought gyms and fitness centers would be a passing fad) but there is one thing I do know: DNA testing and sophisticated diagnosis that make possible highly personalized health, nutrition, and fitness services and products - along with countless other services and products yet to be imagined - is the way of the future.
So, to be ahead of a trend for once, I talked with Robin Thurston, the CEO of Helix, a personal genomics company building an "app store" to empower every person to improve their life through DNA. (Before joining Helix, Robin was a co-founder of MapMyFitness / MapMyRide; when that company was purchased by Under Armour he joined UA as the Chief Digital Officer.)
The Helix goal is to be the "one and done" of DNA testing: provide a saliva sample, Helix performs sophisticated, next-generation DNA sequencing and then stores your results so that when companies develop new products and services, Helix can provide them your data - only with your permission, of course.
(And if you're wondering, yes, I've already ordered a collection kit.)
Every entrepreneur strives to make his or her company different. Other companies provide DNA testing. What makes yours different?
In most cases, companies are using lower-resolution technology that only targets certain letters in specific genes, and getting back limited results based on what they targeted.
The problem is that as new research is discovered, those companies will need to re-run your DNA data. Then new discoveries will pop up, and they'll need to re-run your DNA again...
Once we have sequenced your DNA, when there are new discoveries we can just send you an email and tell you what's new. We can show you new products or services without having to re-sequence your DNA. And we're also not just focused on fitness, diet, or genealogy; there will be hundreds of potential products. Instead, we read every letter of every protein-coding gene - over 100 times the data that most other companies analyze today.
For the consumer, this is a lifelong journey. You don't walk into the Library of Congress and try to read every book on the first day. There are hundreds of millions of data points, and you might have an interest in fitness but later you may want cardiology results and will need clinical-grade data like ours..
You're basically saying that right now I don't know what I someday might want to know... but when I do, you'll be ready for me.
Exactly. We're creating the ability for you to get the right product, at the right time, but only when you want to learn about it.
Our first product with National Geographic is for genealogy. If you want to learn about your ancestral makeup or what percent neanderthal you are, you can. That's your choice. You might not be ready to learn about your predisposition for cancer, or Alzheimer's, or some other condition. Our platform allows you to do that because we have unique product offerings with actionable insights rather than one giant data dump. Some products on the market try to do that, but we believe that's up to the individual. Some people may want to know everything, and they can. Others may not.
We believe that should always be your choice. And if you change your mind, that's okay too -- you can come back and find the right product to tell you about it.
So, in effect your goal is to get me ahead of the curve, but also to make it easier for new companies to develop new products, because the "collection" and "sequencing" problem will be a moot point for them.
We're building a platform that changes the problem from hardware to software. Imagine you're a scientist and you have a great idea for a DNA-based product. To make it work you'll need a lab, need to collect saliva or blood, generate complicated bioinformatics algorithms to analyze the data... that multiples the level of complexity and expense.
We see ourselves as something like the App Store: we're building a platform that makes DNA data easily accessible so that the next generation of interesting products can be created. If a startup comes up with a great idea, their customers' DNA will already be in the system. The platform will already be there. All a new company needs to do is integrate with a Helix API and DNA data is available at their fingertips.
Think of it this way: When the App Store was launched, no one envisioned Uber. Building the platform is what allowed Uber to be created.
Our model is to build a platform that makes DNA sequencing quick and inexpensive so the next generation of products can be created.
Sophistication can also breed complexity, though, and if what you provide is too difficult for me to understand... no matter how great the science, you'll lose me.
That is what is so fascinating about this period in history. The convergence of science and technology is one of the great trends of the next decade.
What you describe is something we're trying to balance at Helix. We're a consumer-facing company, a consumer-facing brand. Real science with real technology will produce some fantastic products for consumers... but adoption is critical.
I believe it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said "I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity." That's what we're trying to achieve. You can be too "consumer-y" and not be taken seriously for the depth of your science, or you can go the other way and provide 77-page reports that, no matter how solid the science, no consumer will read.
That's one of our biggest challenges in the marketplace.
Another challenge is the consumer adoption question. I believe the tipping point has come for personal genomics testing and is about to take off, tens of millions of people will want to have their DNA sequenced ... but in aggregate, across the world, for any type of genetic test, only 5 million people have done it. That's nothing in the consumer world.
Still, the argument about the "right time" is over. It's happening.
Whenever something "happens," competition typically increases. That's what entrepreneurs do.
True, but we have some definite advantages on our side.
Our partnership with Illumina gives us a key competitive advantage: we have built a very sophisticated supply chain and laboratory for collecting and sequencing DNA using the most advanced technology (called "next generation sequencing"). We have developed a proprietary product that we call Exome+. No one will soon be able to claim the level of scale that we operate at.
Scale and price are advantages... but it's the platform model that contextually delivers you, the consumer, the products you want without having to re-sequence. The idea that you will be able to easily take advantage of all the new products on the marketplace in the future... that's our true value proposition.
We've been termed "the App Store for genetics," and that's flattering, but there is some truth to it. You do need that base genetic data set. You do need your DNA sequenced and stored properly, and securely. You do need a platform and technology that lets you access that data.
Our goal is to make it easy for you to benefit from all the cool things that are coming - and to make it easier for other companies to develop those cool things.