Forbes Middle East - - CONTENTS -

Anne Wo­j­ci­cki raised her ge­netic test­ing com­pany, 23andMe, from a Wonky Wun­derkind through a trou­bled ado­les­cence. Now her $2.5 bil­lion biotech ma­chine is ready to take the next step, com­bin­ing big data and big pharma. De­cod­ing the DNA of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s most per­sonal cre­ation.


Anne Wo­j­ci­cki is 45 min­utes late, some­thing so en­coded in her habits as 23andMe’s CEO that em­ploy­ees have stopped com­plain­ing about it. They know it’s hard­wired. On a Thurs­day morn­ing in April, her team is wait­ing pa­tiently as she swirls into the com­pany’s head­quar­ters wear­ing run­ning shorts, a T-shirt that says “Yay DNA” and worn ten­nis shoes, hav­ing just ped­aled the 5 miles to work while eight months preg­nant.

Re­flect­ing Wo­j­ci­cki’s pas­sions, 23andMe’s head­quar­ters, in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, looks like a cross be­tween a Sil­i­con Val­ley startup and a fit­ness club. There are tread­mill desks through­out the open-plan of­fice, el­lip­ti­cal ma­chines in con­fer­ence rooms and Pelo­ton bikes in the cafe­te­ria, which con­nects di­rectly to a gym. Wo­j­ci­cki is still prac­ti­cally bounc­ing af­ter climb­ing the four flights to her small glass-walled of­fice, paus­ing only to fill up her metal wa­ter bot­tle. She makes sure her em­ploy­ees know that their well-be­ing is their own daily choice. “I’m like, ‘I take the stairs and I’m preg­nant! You can take the stairs!’ ” Wo­j­ci­cki says.

Such a work­out would be a lot for most ex­pect­ing moms, but Wo­j­ci­cki, who’s 45 and has two chil­dren with her ex-hus­band, Google co­founder Sergey Brin, isn’t even breath­ing hard. And she is still en­er­gized about what she refers to as her “first child”: her 13-year-old busi­ness, 23andMe. Since its launch, around 10 mil­lion peo­ple have spit a half-tea­spoon of saliva into a 23andMe plas­tic tube and mailed it in to get their an­ces­try or health-risk re­sults. Nearly 5 mil­lion cus­tomers did so last year alone, gen­er­at­ing an es­ti­mated $475 mil­lion in rev­enue for the com­pany, which has yet to turn a profit. It’s also

made Wo­j­ci­cki (No. 33 on this year’s list of Rich­est Self-Made Women) worth an es­ti­mated $690 mil­lion, al­most en­tirely from her roughly 30% stake in 23andMe, which is val­ued at $2.5 bil­lion by in­vestors.

To get this far, Wo­j­ci­cki weath­ered an an­nus hor­ri­bilis that threat­ened to end it all—her sep­a­ra­tion from Brin in 2013 came at the same time the Food & Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion forced 23andMe to im­me­di­ately cease health-test sales—and has faced skep­tics who viewed her com­pany as lit­tle more than a par­lor trick.

Now that she has moved on from her mar­riage and proved be­yond all doubt that 23andMe is a se­ri­ous com­pany, Wo­j­ci­cki finds her­self at a turn­ing point once again, both per­son­ally and in her busi­ness. She’s been qui­etly pre­par­ing to wel­come her third child—this time as a sin­gle par­ent. “Whether you’re in a re­la­tion­ship or not should not dic­tate whether or not you have the abil­ity to have chil­dren,” Wo­j­ci­cki says. “I’m very stub­born. When there’s some­thing I want to do, I get it done. I re­ally wanted a third child. So like, guess what? I ex­e­cuted,” she adds with a laugh.

And while it might make in­ter­est­ing cock­tail con­ver­sa­tion to re­veal that you are 5% Scan­di­na­vian and have a ge­netic dis­po­si­tion to sneeze in the sun, 23andMe’s am­bi­tions are much grander. Wo­j­ci­cki wants to lever­age the ex­po­nen­tially plung­ing costs of ge­netic se­quenc­ing (down 99% in a decade) and 23andMe’s mas­sive DNA li­brary (the world’s largest ge­netic re­search data­base) to fuel a “biotech ma­chine” that will not just in­di­cate ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tions to cer­tain dis­eases but also help cre­ate the drugs that will treat those dis­eases. The bril­liance is that, if all goes as planned, 23andMe gets paid on both ends. Cus­tomers pay to find out about their her­itage and then the com­pany uses that ge­netic data to one day profit from po­ten­tial new medicines. Eighty per­cent of 23andMe’s cus­tomers con­sent to al­low their DNA to be used for bio­med­i­cal re­search.

“I thought it was ge­nius ac­tu­ally, that peo­ple were pay­ing us to build the data­base,” says Richard Scheller, 23andMe’s chief sci­en­tist. “Peo­ple want their data to be used and to help sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies.”

23andMe’s lat­est chap­ter started with an in-house drug dis­cov­ery group in 2015. But pharma de­vel­op­ment is no­to­ri­ously hard—86% of new drugs fail in clin­i­cal tri­als— and ex­pen­sive. The av­er­age cost of de­vel­op­ing a medicine in the U.S. is about $2.6 bil­lion. So, in July of last year, Wo­j­ci­cki inked a deal with U.K.-based gi­ant GSK (for­merly called Glax­o­SmithK­line; 2018 sales: $31 bil­lion), which in­vested $300 mil­lion in 23andMe and signed a four-year ex­clu­sive part­ner­ship to iden­tify new drug tar­gets. 23andMe will have to share drug-de­vel­op­ment costs, but it will also share in any prof­its.

An­other po­ten­tial growth area for 23andMe is a deeper and more per­son­al­ized ap­proach to health. Wo­j­ci­cki wants to coach con­sumers based on their genes, giv­ing them greater con­trol over their health. That could mean more part­ner­ships like the one it has with fel­low Moun­tain View startup Lark Health, which lets 23andMe cus­tomers sign up for di­a­betes coun­sel­ing. Or it could mean that 23andMe’s own AI-pow­ered app will re­mind you to drink more wa­ter or to choose a lunch en­trée with toma­toes, which some re­search touts as help­ing to de­ter the on­set of Parkin­son’s. Wo­j­ci­cki isn’t shar­ing de­tails just yet about the coach­ing.

It won’t be an easy task. There’s no clin­i­cal ev­i­dence that peo­ple who’ve learned through ge­netic test­ing that they have a high ge­netic risk for a spe­cific dis­ease dra­mat­i­cally change their lifestyle to lower that risk. Or change their lifestyle at all. In fact, there is plenty of ev­i­dence, both sci­en­tific and anec­do­tal, to the con­trary. Hu­mans find habits hard to break. Wo­j­ci­cki’s own staff take the el­e­va­tor when she’s out of sight.

But it’s a gam­ble she’s will­ing to take. “The med­i­cal world has kind of given up on your po­ten­tial to ever be health­ier,” she says. “I think that’s re­ally sad.”

Wo­j­ci­cki her­self was al­most forced to give up six years ago. In Novem­ber of 2013, she was busy adapt­ing to a rapidly evolv­ing life. Her hus­band had re­port­edly moved out. She was mother to two young chil­dren and the CEO of a startup. Then, days be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, her phone buzzed with a text: A courier from the FDA had a pack­age for her. “Don’t sign for it!” Wo­j­ci­cki fired back to her as­sis­tant.

It was too late. The FDA no­tice or­dered her com­pany to im­me­di­ately stop mar­ket­ing its health tests be­cause it had failed to pro­vide enough ev­i­dence that they were ac­cu­rate. Wo­j­ci­cki thought she could brush it off. Three days later, the FDA made its warn­ing let­ter pub­lic, and 23andMe had to take its health tests off the shelf.

It was an abrupt crash af­ter a high-fly­ing start, and many were quick to iden­tify it as an­other tale of Sil­i­con Val­ley hubris, not sur­pris­ing given Wo­j­ci­cki’s deep roots in the area. She had grown up on the Stan­ford Univer­sity cam­pus, where her fa­ther, Stan­ley, was a physics pro­fes­sor. Wo­j­ci­cki’s mother, Es­ther, taught jour­nal­ism at a high school in Palo Alto and ob­sessed over how early she could teach her three daugh­ters every­thing, from the Latin names of flow­ers to swim­ming as tod­dlers. “I used them as an ed­u­ca­tional ex­per­i­ment,” Es­ther told Forbes in 2018. While her sis­ters grav­i­tated to­ward art and math, Wo­j­ci­cki was nerdy but so­cial. “She could charm the pants off of any­body,” her mother re­called.

Among those to fall for her charms was Brin (and much later, base­ball player Alex Ro­driguez), whom she met af­ter her old­est sis­ter, Su­san, rented out the garage of her Menlo Park home in 1998 to two am­bi­tious Ph.D.s try­ing to in­dex the world’s in­for­ma­tion: Google co­founders Larry Page and Brin. Su­san be­came Google’s 16th em­ployee and even­tu­ally the CEO of YouTube. The mid­dle Wo­j­ci­cki sis­ter, Janet, is now a globe-trot­ting epi­demi­ol­o­gist who teaches at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cisco.

Wo­j­ci­cki first got fired up to bat­tle the health­care sys­tem

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