NATURE AND NURTURE
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
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.
By BIZ CARSON AND KATHLEEN CHAYKOWSKI
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