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Timothée Richard 12.15.20

The DNA business


Recently, the popularity of recreational ancestry tests has made DNA a burning issue of the day, raising questions about the vulnerability of the data generated while providing opportunities to gain an unprecedented level of knowledge about one’s self, as well as about large groups of individuals.

In early 2019, thirteen years after the emergence of the first genetics test provider, DNA storage databases now contain the genetic profiles of 26 million people, according to the latest industry statistics. And the business is seeing exponential growth, with an increase of 500% since 2017 (+22 million in two years). One reason is the ambient uncertainty – social, political and environmental – that most of us find uncomfortable.

According to the MIT Technology Review, if this trend continues such databases could hold the DNA of 100 million people by 2021, a number that has substantial implications for the sector’s business prospects and raises trust and privacy issues.

Recreational ancestry tests

Led by AncestryDNA (10 million profiles) and 23andMe (5 million profiles) in the United States – two business phenomena accounting for 57% of the market – the list of players in the field is getting longer, especially in the U.S. (e.g. ColorLiving DNAFamilyTreeDNAiGeneaNebula Genetics). For a modest price, a customer can purchase a DNA ancestry test to find out more about their origins (e.g. which part of the world their ancestors came from) and match them with possible relatives.

Customers can download their data from these websites and add them to open personal genomics databases like Gedmatch, which, as we will see below, made headlines in April 2018 when law enforcement used it to identify a suspect. Today, according to Inc., it may be possible to identify 60% of white Americans from a DNA sample via a public ancestry database.

In Europe – even if recreational genetic testing is still prohibited in France and Germany – the outlook is gradually improving. Recently, Ancestry set up a subsidiary in Ireland and the United Kingdom, MyHeritage – 2.5 million genetic profiles – is growing fast and has just translated its website into 42 languages. According to the French TV program Vox Pop, the European market should double by 2024.

Making better personal choices

Once quantified and analyzed, biometric data can reveal patterns in our activities and tell a great deal about who we are, what we think and what we are likely to do next. Can we reach a higher level of endurance? Do we have an unsuspected gift for producing language?

Knowing your genetic traits to orient your lifestyle

In the U.S., Orig3n markets tests, including a $29 DNA test to measure your strength, intelligence and speed and  “tap into your hidden superpower”.  More than a medical diagnosis, this range of tests seeks to determine potential for performance or the development of character traits. A variation on the “know thyself” theme, it may be way to cope with ambient uncertainty.

Other companies, like EverlyWell, are positioning themselves on the health segment of the digital DNA testing market. It proposes to help customers live better by testing certain levels and factors (e.g. food sensitivities, fertility and testosterone levels)… and to compare their results with those of their peers.

These “know thyself” trends may shed light on our level of educational attainment, hence our earning power, which are factors in a Genome Wide Association Study.

Privacy is dead

At South by Southwest, Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute declared that we no longer have any expectation of total privacy.

This statement is borne out by recent developments, e.g. the growth in DNA data storage and the business arrangements between Google and 23andMe, a U.S.-based genetic testing service. And last year the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline invested 300 million dollars in 23andMe in return for access the latter’s genetic data (Business Insider).  The ultimate – and increasingly obvious – objective is to become a biobank.

It is widely proclaimed that data are the new oil. In other words, the data that we store are no longer merely a business cost, but a precious asset and a potential source of competitive advantage.

Data have become the fuel powering the new technologies, such as machine learning, but also provides the means of taking the personalization of the customer experience as far as it will go.

What about the sale of genetic testing data in exchange for compensation or to enhance individual or collective “well being”? Players advocating the latter include Family Tree DNA (“Give us your DNA. Help catch a criminal.”). The idea is to highlight the upsides of an open genetic database, especially to solve crimes and benefit public health. Last year, the Golden State Killer was identified through a public ancestry database.

Has this inspired greater consumer trust in this market? Not yet. While 91% of Americans surveyed say they support the use of genealogy in investigations into violent crimes, market expansion is inhibited by the potential for discrimination based on genetic heritage, especially in Europe.

According to the Future Today Institute, there may be a consumer backlash to this upsurge in favor of biometric technologies and its  medium – and long-term scenarios foresee the emergence of “camouflage” behavior to evade detection by facial recognition algorithms… a notion that could well be a source of inspiration for fashion and beauty brands!

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