23andMe Ancestry- Are you secretly my brother?

A consumer genetics company tackles ancestry through matching data

23andMe is a consumer genetics company that primarily has been used for ancestry data and connecting people with unknown relatives. Recently, it regained FDA approval to start releasing health-related data (and has always provided customers with the raw data if they wanted to sift through it themselves), but their focus at the moment is on the ancestry side and that’s what I’d like to focus on.

Their value creation comes from organizing a database of customers who submit their saliva samples, detecting where different snippets of genes come from, and providing a graphical breakdown of the various places that your DNA comes from. While mine is mostly Ashkenazi Jewish, I’ve also got bits of Neanderthal, Finnish, and Yakut. It connects me with other people who share enough DNA, and it predicts how closely related I am to them. Without telling them, it predicted my mom and siblings, and has matched me with a bunch of 2nd and 3rd cousins. There’s a network effect here, where the more people who use the service, the greater number of relatives you can reach- but even in their limited network, I have a few hundred 2nd and 3rd cousins I can now talk to. This is especially valuable for adopted people who are seeking answers. There are a few competitors, notably ancestry.com, but none have the network or the detailed ancestry profiling needed to connect people in this way.

Over the course of the last few years, its main challenges have been regulatory; for a while, it was providing health data (and it does have a future in customized medicine, as written thoroughly about by YSH at https://d3.harvard.edu/platform-digit/submission/23andme-dna-analytics-and-the-future-of-personalized-medicine/) and then lost its ability to distribute that data by the FDA. They took the opportunity to become the market leader in the ancestry niche, and dropped their prices down to $99. Recently, with the reintegration of health data, they’ve now doubled their prices- to much backlash on the forums from people who only wanted to use the ancestry services and now can’t buy additional kits for family members without also getting the far more expensive health data. This will prove challenging as they try to determine who their best customers are; stepping into the health data space targets a very different set of people, and they may wind up diluting their core customer base that way.


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Student comments on 23andMe Ancestry- Are you secretly my brother?

  1. This is really interesting! It makes me want to try it :). I have a few questions though around how they capture value. This seems like a one-time purchase for a person and possibly his/her family members. Is the personalized health route the way they deal with capturing value across time from the same customer? Also, how to they enhance the direct network effects by first attracting people to use this service? I had heard of it a bit from the HBS community, but not elsewhere. I suppose they have to target wealthier people with more disposable income to spend on such a service. Do you know how they are trying to raise brand awareness and I suppose, more importantly, let people know how the company’s product can create a lot of value for them? I am also curious about any privacy concerns at play here. Who owns the data? If I send in my saliva, I guess 23andMe owns it? Are they allowed to do anything they want with it (i.e. sell it)?

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