Mapping Google’s Stake in 23andMe

A Monthlong Magnification of Google: the Company, the Technologies, and the Extracurricular Activities

In May 2007, Google invested almost 4 million dollars in founder Sergey Brin’s fiancĂ©’s (now wife) new company, 23andMe, Inc.

According to its website, 23andMe is “a web-based service that helps you read and understand your DNA.”

For $1,000 anyone can purchase a 23andMe DNA kit that includes a mail-in collection for a saliva sample. 23andMe then extracts DNA from your saliva and runs a genetic profile that provides information about ancestry, lineage, medical history, etc. The company provides this information via password protected profiles on their website.(1)

From the get-go, bloggers and journalists have questioned Google’s investment in the genetic mapping company. On one hand, it could be viewed as an innocent investment in a spouse’s startup. On the other, the investment could be seen as Google’s first step towards indexing genetic information.

As Kevin Kelleher at GigaOm points out, Google’s investment may be in reaction to Microsoft’s purchase of Medstory, a health-care search engine.

But as Duncan Riley at TechCrunch plainly states, “…no one really knows why Google invested in the company aside from Brin’s marital relationship.”

Total venture capital investment in 23andMe is estimated at around $10 million dollars. Google’s $3.9 million investment gives them a minority interest in the company. In addition to Google, Genentech, Inc. was also one of the startup’s investors.(2) Genentech’s CEO, Arthur Levinson, sits on Google’s Board of Directors.(3)

In addition to being a 23andMe co-founder, Brin’s wife, Anne Wojcicki, is also a shareholder and member of the startup’s board of directors.(4)

Is it possible that Google, Levinson, and Wojcicki constitute a majority stake in 23andMe? Does Google’s stake in 23andMe allow them access and/or use of data collected by 23andMe, including genetic profiles? The company’s privacy statement says no. “23andMe will not release your personal information to any outside company without your explicit consent.”(5)

But maybe the bigger question is, what is the real benefit of collecting DNA from a willing customer?

A recent Special Report on Human Genomics from the ETC Group, points out:

[T]he information gleaned from most genetic tests has very limited use for patients, but it is extremely valuable to companies and researchers trying to establish links between medical conditions and genetic variations, enabling – they hope – the eventual development of drugs targeted to people with specific genetic profiles.(6)

The report goes on to speculate that in the short-term, if it’s possible to prescribe medication based on genetic profiling, this could lead to a new market of “personalized drugs,” which may even bring back drugs that have been taken off the market due to adverse reactions in certain groups of people.

Through clever (and often misleading) marketing, some companies are persuading consumers to pay for storage of genetic data and health information, which the companies intend to use (e.g., sell) for research and drug development.(7)

Let’s look again at the 23andMe Privacy Statement:

One of 23andMe’s goals is to contribute to scientific research and the advancement of genetic knowledge. To achieve our research goals, 23andMe may enter into partnerships with commercial and/or non-profit organizations that conduct scientific and/or medical research. Such partnerships may allow an organization access to our databases of Genetic Information and other contributed Phenotypic Information, so that, for example, the organization can search, without knowing the identities of the individuals involved, for the correlation between presence of a particular genetic variation and a particular health condition or trait. We may receive compensation from these research partners.(8)

23andMe continues to affirm the privacy of its clients’ personal information:

Partner organizations will not have access to your Account Information (e.g., name, contact information, payment information).(9)

Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 23andMe distributed one thousand free DNA collection kits to some of the world’s most powerful people. The Davos contributors also received free 23andMe memberships. Promotional moves like this have helped 23andMe get a leg up on its DNA collection competition.

According to Jesse Reynolds from the Center for Genetics and Society, “[t]he highest profile company in this field is 23andMe, backed by Google both financially and maritally.”(10) Reynolds points to Google’s recent unveiling of its health records program at a conference in Orlando as a likely connection between the two companies.(11) “Not only is Google an investor in 23andMe, it is also a likely future business partner,” states Reynolds.

Google Health is expected to launch sometime this year.

According to a New York Times article about Anne Wojcicki and 23andMe, Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, “declined to comment about 23andMe’s business or its future products,” but did point out the objective measures Google took in evaluating its 23andMe investment.(12)

However, the NYT article’s author made an observation that bears highlighting: “Mr. Schmidt said that the Google investment in 23andMe would eventually benefit Google and its users.”

The nature of that benefit is a mystery that is beginning to be mapped.

Food for Thought

If Google were able to combine the immense amounts of user data they collect right now with the health and medical data that could potentially be gathered from Google Health AND combine that with data potentially available to them through 23andMe, a person’s Google profile could be a dangerous thing. What if this hypothetical Google profile ever got into the hands of a health insurance provider? Could you be denied coverage based on a genetic predisposition to cancer? What if you also often search terms like “breathing problems” and “wheezing,” or you’ve emailed a cancer specialist to try and get an appointment?

1. 23andMe, website, last visited April 8, 2008.
2. SEC Form 8-K, Google Inc. Regulation FD Disclosure, May 22, 2007.
3. Google Corporate Information, last visited April 8, 2008.
4. SEC Form 8-K, Google Inc. Regulation FD Disclosure, May 22, 2007.
5. 23andMe, Full Privacy Statement, last visited April 8, 2008.
6. ETC Group, Report on Human Genomics, Part I, Direct-to-Consumer DNA Testing and the Myth of Personalized Medicine: Spit Kits, SNP Chips and Human Genomics, March 2008.
7. ETC Group, Report on Human Genomics, Part I, March 2008.
8. 23andMe, Privacy Statement, last visited April 10, 2008.
9. 23andMe, Privacy Statement, last visited April 10, 2008.
10. Jesse Reynolds, Genomes of the Rich and Famous, Biopolitical Times, Mar. 5, 2008.
11. Jefferson Graham, Prognosis is bright for Google’s health records plan, USA Today, Feb. 28, 2008.
12. Katie Hafner, Silicon Valley Wide-Eyed Over a Bride, The New York Times, May 29, 2007.