You Can Trace the Ancestry of 23andMe’s Success to CEO Anne Wojcicki

Anne Wojcicki.

Most people might not know how to pronounce Anne Wojcicki’s name (Wo-JIT-skee). But everyone knows the company she co-founded in 2006 and still heads, 23andMe (which refers to the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a normal human cell, half each from the mother and father). It was one of the first to offer a direct-to-consumer saliva test to reveal an individual’s DNA instead of the traditional blood sample. The Sunnyvale, California-based company has become wildly popular as interest in ancestral roots has boomed, and awareness of the role of genetics in health risks has dramatically increased.

On June 17, 2021, the private company was “combined” with the VG Acquisition Corp., at a $3.5 billion valuation, with the reorganized 23andMe Holding Co.’s Class A Common shares trading on Nasdaq under the symbol ME. Sir Richard Branson, founder of VG’s parent, the Virgin Group, noted that he was one of 23andMe’s earliest investors because he understood its potential to help people be more proactive about their well-being.

“23andMe was founded to revolutionize healthcare by empowering people with direct access to their DNA,” Wojcicki said. “Over 11 million people have joined and are part of the community that is using genetics to transform how we diagnose, treat, and prevent human disease. As we enter the next phase as a public company, we have the opportunity to expand our impact by bringing personalized healthcare directly to everyone.”

Last year, Forbes listed her as one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.

The Roots of Her Success

Wojcicki grew up on the campus of Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., the epicenter of Silicon Valley’s technology earthquake that continues to shake up the world. Her father, Stanley, a Polish-born professor of physics, later became chairman of the department (now emeritus). Her mother, Esther, is a retired innovative journalism and English teacher at Palo Alto High School and has also been a consultant to Google on education.

They encouraged Anne and her two older sisters, Susan and Janet, to be curious and ambitious. Susan is now CEO of YouTube, and Janet is an associate adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine — an expert on the distribution of disease.

“My parents gave us a lot of freedom and independence to go around the neighborhood and make decisions,” she recalled for CNBC in 2018. “They encouraged us to find our passions and be creative.” She further noted to BBC that they “told us, ‘Don’t be afraid if someone disagrees with you.’”

Anne took them at their word when they advised her to pursue tennis rather than ice skating and refused to pay for her skates if she insisted. She did, winning competitions to buy them and babysitting in exchange for lessons.

After earning a BS in biology from 1996 Yale, Wojcicki worked as a consultant on healthcare investments (especially biotech) for 10 years, but she became disillusioned by the attitude of those who were eager to make money off the sick rather than preventing patients from even becoming ill. She recalled “a panic-attack moment” for the Washington Post, which occurred at an event where insurers and accountants talked about how to “maximize the billing opportunity” when people sought care for their ailments. There was little incentive for companies to try to prevent disease compared with developing cures or treatments that mitigated the effects. She quit investing in 2006.

But doctors she knew discouraged her because of the huge debt they incurred, which overshadowed their practice of medicine. Over dinner with a friend who was a scientist at Rockefeller University, they discussed his research project into the impact of genetics on health. He expressed frustration at having so much data and unsureness of how to make sense of it, which prompted her to bring up her interest in DNA.

“We talked about what would happen if you could get the world’s DNA,” she told Fast Company (which named her Most Daring CEO in 2013). “He said it would change the world.”

She met Linda Avey, a biotech executive specializing in genetics, at a TED conference, an acquaintance of her boyfriend (later husband) Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google). Avey introduced her to management expert Paul Cusenza. Together, they founded 23andMe just three years after the first full sequencing of the human genome (which had taken 13 years). 

Cusenza stepped down to become CEO of Nodal Exchange, an electronic commodities exchange, in 2008. Avey left in 2009 to launch the Brainstorm Research Foundation, focusing on Alzheimer’s research. In 2011, she co-founded Curious, Inc., a data-collecting platform for patients with chronic conditions, serving as CEO until 2016. The following year, she co-founded, Inc., which offers consumer genetics to the developing world, and remains at the helm.

From Genealogy Tool to Medical Revolution

In 2007, Google invested $3.9 million in the startup, along with some other venture capital firms. A year later, its $399 test (which required spitting into a tube and sending it to a company-approved lab) was declared by Time magazine the Invention of the Year.

By the end of 2012, Wojcicki had raised another $123 million and dropped the price of its ancestry-only test to $99, making basic genetic testing affordable for almost everyone.

“We’re not just looking to get a venture-capital return,” Wojcicki explained to Fast Company. “We set out with this company to revolutionize healthcare.”

But critics expressed concern that patients weren’t qualified to interpret their tests. She pushed back, pointing to the objections doctors raised in the 1960s when home pregnancy tests were first made available, arguing that awareness of health dispositions would empower consumers to improve their diets and lifestyles. It was personal for her: Brin’s test showed he had a gene that made it more likely he could eventually have Parkinson’s disease. They invested $150 million in a collaboration between the Michael J. Fox Foundation and 23andMe. Furthermore, they worked with other institutions and began doing their own research into the causes of other diseases.

In November 2013, after years of back-and-forth of dealing with the US Food and Drug Administration’s regulations imposed on the company, 23andMe hit a major speed bump when it was warned to stop selling its test kits. The company had been in frequent communication with the FDA since it ruled in 2010 that DNA tests were medical devices and required approval. However, the communication had broken down in the six months before the warning.

“That setback was a challenge to overcome, and I realized we were so focused on the work to instill our staff about the long-term vision of the company that we didn’t look down the path of providing the FDA with our clinical and analytical validity,” Wojcicki told the BBC in 2018.

In 2014, 23andMe began selling risk-related tests in Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) while it was working with the FDA on what needed to be done to make them available to Americans again. The next year, the FDA authorized its Carrier Status test for Bloom syndrome (characterized by short stature, predisposition for cancer, and genomic instability), having been convinced the kit was easy for the average consumer to use and the test results were accurate, reproducible, and repeatable.

In 2017, the company received authorization for another 10 diseases, which included Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and celiac disease. The FDA clarified that the tests were not diagnostic, just informative of risk. The same year, the company started a collaboration with the Lundbeck pharmaceutical company and the Milken Institute think tank to find solutions for psychiatric conditions, such as depression and bipolar disorder.

In the next year, GlaxoSmithKline invested $300 million in a partnership to use aggregated test data to allow it to develop new drugs. Wojcicki made it clear that individual privacy would be a first priority in all such relationships.

Although 23andMe was not designed specifically to help people confirm parentage or find biological parents, their optional DNA Relatives tool was known to be used by individuals who were conceived by sperm or egg donors to find biological siblings and donors.

By the time of the VG acquisition, VCs had put in a total of $850 million. Patrick Chung, a partner with one of its first investors, New Enterprise Associates, told the New York Times that he was particularly impressed with Wojciciki’s ability to explain the science without losing her audience. “She’s really, really smart and still completely accessible. And that is a gift,” he noted.

“Anne Wojcicki is a prime example of a leader who chose possibility repeatedly and embraced risk-taking as a process to grow herself and 23andMe,” said Sukhinder Sigh Cassidy, author of “Choose Possibility.” “Though she could have pursued the same path and gone to medical school, she opted for an unconventional route, first as a healthcare investor, then pivoting again to become an entrepreneur. She has guided her company through multiple pivots to find its ultimate fit, now collaborating in the development of breakthrough medicines. Like Wojcicki, we should all be embracing moves big and small in our risk-taking journey to find our personal and professional peak impact.”

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Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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