In February 2001, Nature published the first draft sequence and initial analysis of the human genome, a project made possible by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium. It's fitting that on the 20th anniversary of the first draft sequence, 23andMe — a pioneer in direct-to-consumer genetic testing — announced its intent to become a publicly-traded company.
I first got to know 23andMe CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki over a decade ago. I was an investing partner at GV and finishing my Ph.D. work in biomedical research at Stanford, while Anne was hard at work bringing 23andMe's DNA genetic testing and analysis kits directly to individuals. Recently I sat down with Anne for a wide-ranging conversation about why the company decided to go through a SPAC process, and how 23andMe changed the cultural discourse around direct-to-consumer genomics.
With the advent of direct listing and SPACs, startups today have more options for later-stage financing and routes to becoming public entities. I asked Anne what the SPAC process was like and why they decided to go this route.
"The pandemic is an incredible shift in how people are looking at healthcare," said Anne. "There's an immense opportunity to drive change, and that's part of the reason we decided to do a SPAC — suddenly, there's an opportunity to make acquisitions, to raise capital, and to really go big."
While awareness and cultural acceptance of genetic testing has grown leaps and bounds since 23andMe was founded, it has been a long journey to get to where we are now. "When we launched the company, it was so controversial — the idea of giving people their genome," Anne reflects. "There was outrage that 23andMe was giving people direct access to the raw data."
Anne and her team were relentless in pursuing their mission. They worked hard to change the cultural discourse around access to an individual's genetic information, starting with education and highlighting the benefits of understanding the human genome to prevent disease. Today, 23andMe has the largest genotypic and phenotypic database with participation from 80 percent of consenting customers. In 2015, the company created a therapeutics team that uses this database to discover and develop new treatments across a variety of disease areas.
"We started almost 15 years ago, so in some ways, it feels like we're slowly building progress each step of the way," she says. "We sold 1,000 kits the first day we launched. It took a while to get the momentum to more than 10 million customers, which is where we are today."
Congratulations to Anne and the entire 23andMe team on taking the company public. It's an exciting step in their quest to provide greater access to genetic information — and through that, to radically advance human health.