Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign’s most recent From the Innovator’s Workbench event on April 13 featured the prominent entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andMe. In a one-on-one conversation with David Cassak, co-editor of the MedTech Strategist, Anne shared her experience at the frontlines of innovation in DNA testing and the history of how she took her company public via a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company led by Richard Branson, raising nearly $600 million.
The virtual lecture, which was a Tracy Lefteroff memorial event, was co-sponsored by Fogarty Innovation and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati (WSGR). Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign co-founder and director Josh Makower, MD, and Fogarty Innovation CEO, Andrew Cleeland, moderated the event; and Andrew opened with a tribute to Tracy, a former Fogarty Innovation board member and global managing partner at PwC. Tracy was one of the pioneers who shaped our industry, and this Innovator’s Workbench honored his many contributions to healthcare innovation.
Below are some highlights of this fascinating interview with Anne.
Finding a path to healthcare
Anne grew up around the Stanford University campus surrounded by academics, including her father, who studied particle physics. She majored in biology at Yale, but wasn’t sure what her next step would be as she recognized she didn’t want to be a bench scientist. After exploring several career options via temporary jobs, she found her way to Wall Street where she was a healthcare analyst and fund manager for 10 years. “Coming from the academic world, I had no idea you could actually get paid to study biotech companies, which is something I loved doing,” says Anne.
Her time spent studying companies’ financials made it clear that very few aspects of the healthcare system were aligned with consumers’ best interests. “I realized that none of the companies I was investing in were focused on how to stay out of the hospital system, nor did they actively involve consumers,” she says.
23andme is launched as she searched for a “better way”
Spurred by her fascination with the human genome, Anne sought to find a way to overhaul the healthcare system by empowering individuals with access to their genetic information
To that end, she was inspired by the HIV community, which at the time had coalesced behind activism as a way to make a difference in HIV treatment, as well as by the efforts of Caterina Fake, co-founder of photo sharing site Flickr, who introduced her to social web 2.0. “I started to realize that any attempt to accomplish both goals—to better understand the human genome and to create a different type of healthcare system in which patients were partners in their own care—had to be driven by the people, for the people.”
And with that, 23andMe was born, with a mission to empower people by helping them access, understand, and benefit from their genetic information, and to crowdsource this data in order to inform research and medical decision-making. Participation in 23andMe research is an opt-in process, separate from the terms of service and is completely voluntary.
Customers were intrigued with the idea of gaining access to their genetic information, ancestry, and the 12 health-related reports offered initially by the company, with sales spiking around the launch of the testing kits.
“It’s remarkable how much people talk about DNA, and while they often don’t know a lot about it, they definitely associate it with their health,” said Anne.
A tug of war with the medical community
Research was an essential part of 23andMe’s mission from day one. The company was hopeful crowdsourced data could unlock findings that would help the medical community develop improved therapies based on genetic information.
However, there was push back from the medical community, which “was absolutely against everything we were doing,” said Anne.
“The medical community had a paternalistic response to23andMe’s direct-to-consumer testing concept, based on their belief that genetic information should be the purview of genetic counselors, rather than individual consumers,” she recalls.
Anne drew a parallel to the dot-com era when doctors battled WebMD because it armed consumers with information, which allowed them to research conditions, symptoms and medications and discuss them with doctors.
Forging a path forward
Despite potential obstacles from the medical community, investor interest was high. Anne, however, was selective about choosing funders to be involved with 23andMe in order to build a team with the vision—and patience—essential for a company creating a whole new industry with many uncertainties.
Over the years, advisors have recommending selling off parts of the company to focus on just one undertaking, like drug discovery. Anne has refused however, believing that individual parts of the company aren’t viable independently because they are so closely related and benefit each other.
This vision eventually led to the company’s partnership with long-time investor Richard Branson and the $600 million SPAC that provided stability and the ability to build the company faster.
As she looks to the future, Anne is enthusiastic. “We have all the pieces in place. We have an incredible team; we are publicly traded; and we have more than 12 million customers who have helped us create the world’s largest genetic database, which we can mine for new discoveries. Even more exciting, we keep learning more about the role genetics play in our lives and are successfully educating the public. That has really begun to be a conversation starter and is a game changer in empowering individuals to take control of their own healthcare.”