October 1, 2014

23andMe In Canada, 8 Years Later There's Miles to Go

Years ago, eight actually, 23andMe was founded. I was an AC at High Road in Ottawa and was naive enough to think that we should pitch them for new biz. My fellow PR peeps will appreciate the zeal and stupidity that it took. Needless to say the conversation went nowhere. 

I have to admire the company for its early day strategy - they focused on getting the product right, understanding how consumers would use it and respond to it, and focusing on their mission and vision.

Tonight, I was so lucky to meet the team at 23andMe including founders Anne Wojcicki and Uta Francke as part of their (re)launch into Canada. 23andMe is a genetic database service. From the outset, they had a clear mission to help people understand their personal genome and help construct their ancestry. At the same time, making personal health information available by understanding predispositions based someone's chromosomal highway. 

In Canada, 20,000 people signed up. Eager to learn more about the helix they carried. But, they were unable to find out the health reports based on the information - they could only access the ancestral connections within the database. 

It seems crazy to think that just 8 years ago, the information highway related to healthcare was touchy. eHealth in Canada was.... well, viewed by many as an over-investment in taxpayer dollars for few results. Security for any sharing of health-related data was met with incredible skepticism. We didn't have a culture of "there's an app for that." The cloud didn't exist. And few believed that revolutionizing healthcare was possible. It's no wonder that 23andMe and other companies like it were told too much information wouldn't be good for consumers. 

That has all changed now. Today, 23andMe is making its 108 reports - including genetic risk factors - available to Canadians. The 20,000 who had already had their genetics mapped out will automatically get this new information .

In 8 years, 23andMe has inspired people to find out what their true heritage is, whether they are at risk for breast cancer or heart disease, to meet siblings they didn't grow up with, and to understand more about who they are. At the same time, there are a lot of questions. Information can be incredibly empowering, sometimes scary, and on occasion a burden. What I learned is that the people at 23andMe understand these implications. They aren't just geneticists, they are people who are trying to understand the response from people as they get access to this new information. They are sympathetic to each person's journey - those who pursue it and those who don't. 

It was an awe-striking evening for a former bio-nerd like me. There's power in the information that we haven't even begun to realize. But they have a vision. It's clear to them. It's inspiring. And I am really grateful to have heard first-hand about their journey and the passion that is leading them.