Both Google and Sergey Brin have made an investment in personal genetics company 23andme in a series B funding round. This comes on top of a previous investment from both Google and Brin in the series A round in 2007. On the one hand, this is pretty sketchy. It is a serious conflict of interest, as Brin is married to 23andme co-founder Anne Wojcicki. On the other hand, you gotta hand it to Google and Brin for sinking their hands into yet another initiative that is trying to make the world a better place. Overall though, I wish they had found a less controversial way of doing so.
Brin appears to have sunk $10 million into this series B round, while Google has put in $2.6 million. As if the financial investments weren’t controversial enough, apparently Google and 23andme have entered into some sort of leasing agreement, though the details of this agreement are not available.
For those with their heads in the sand, there are two major types of personal genome sequencing out there. In the first type, your entire genome is sequenced – every single one of your 3 Billion base pairs. This procedure is expensive and time consuming, and although companies like Complete Genomics are poised to bring this ability to the masses for about $1,000 per individual in the next year or two, the price is currently much higher. For the masses who cannot wait for the full genome sequencing from the likes of Complete Genomics, an alternative is to have more than 1 million of the most important or interesting chunks of your DNA, called SNPs, analyzed for much less than $1,000 today. There are two major players in this space, 23andme and Decodeme. As we reported earlier, Decodeme is facing imminent bankruptcy, and this latest round of funding shows that even for industry front runner 23andme the market is a tough place to be.
Although the future for personal DNA sequencing is eventually going in the direction of full sequencing of every single base pair, 23andme offers a valuable service in the near term that is charting new ground and helping to pave the way for the ongoing genetics revolution. Given that the future seems to be in whole genome sequencing, rather than with SNPs, the long term future of 23andme seems perilous…I would not want to be one of their investors for the long term.
Ethical investments and economic viability of the company aside, you gotta hand it to 23andme for being an innovative and leading company in the field of genetics. They have really stirred things up: making genetics cool, bringing real genetic tools to the masses, and proposing bold initiatives for conquering disease. Most notably perhaps, our earlier story on the 23andme initiative to gather DNA samples from at least 10,000 people as part of a massive effort to identify genes that may be at the root of Parkinson’s disease is laudable.
Now with more money in the bank, 23andme should be able to plug along for another year or more and further the genomics revolution. Lets wish them well, for we need all the help we can get to achieve the promise of genetics.
(Disclosure: In my previous career I worked at Google)