From Data Pioneering to Dire Straits: The Struggle of 23andMe
Years ago, while leading strategy for a global humanitarian project, I met one of the co-founders of 23andMe. The story unfolds in unexpected ways.
Our advisor chose to explore her family history using 23andMe and uncovered a captivating tale of our world’s interconnectedness. During her research, she found a small, longstanding cemetery in Nebraska. Here, she learned one of her ancestors lay buried and decided to delve further by examining online photos of the gravesite. As she dug deeper, another individual contacted her, revealing they were both investigating the same grave.
To her surprise, she received an email from a woman sharing her last name, who informed her of their shared research interest in the same ancestor. They agreed to talk and learn more about their shared lineage.
In a total twist, this individual turned out to be the co-founder of 23andMe. Their mutual interest in family history brought them together, leading to a close friendship marked by shared experiences.
When we met the co-founder to discuss our initiative, she had already left for her next project around data-driven health.
And today, once a beacon in the genetic testing industry, 23andMe finds itself navigating rough seas. From a peak valuation of $6 billion to a present-day struggle for survival, this journey encapsulates both the potential and pitfalls of pioneering in the realm of genetic data. And as always, it’s a question of conscious leadership.
23andMe, once a frontrunner in the DNA-testing arena, now teeters on the brink. Plagued by privacy concerns and a significant data breach, the company’s value plummeted. Its stock, once a symbol of biotech innovation, hovers near delisting levels. Yet, according to the WSJ, CEO Anne Wojcicki remains undeterred, envisioning a transformation into a healthcare titan.
From Data Pioneering to Dire Straits
The WSJ chronicles the journey of CEO Anne Wojcicki who balances social advantages with business opportunities, confronts relentless headwinds, navigates the allure of red carpet glamour, and grapples with harsh economic realities.
“Now Wojcicki’s self-made billions have vanished. 23andMe’s valuation has crashed 98% from its peak and Nasdaq has threatened to delist its sub-$1 stock. Wojcicki reduced staff by a quarter last year through three rounds of layoffs and a subsidiary sale. The company has never made a profit and is burning cash so quickly it could run out by 2025.”
23andMe’s journey is marked by brilliance and missteps. On one hand, it revolutionized genetic awareness, outpacing a healthcare ecosystem still grappling with genetic medicine’s implications. Its platform has reunited families, bridging gaps for those with sealed or lost adoption records. On the other hand, its venture into sharing DNA with law enforcement and an overreach into healthcare services raises questions about privacy and the ethical use of genetic data.
And facing a huge data breach last year, raising privacy concerns, and triggering a class-action lawsuit, set in some new realities.
The crux of 23andMe’s struggle lies not only in its business model but is an issue of unconscious leadership. Customers engage once for genetic testing. But the pathway from this data to tangible health benefits remains nebulous. Efforts to monetize genetic data for pharmaceutical research have yet to yield significant breakthroughs. This conundrum also reflects the broader opportunity of translating pioneering science into conscious business.
Despite these challenges, does hope remain? 23andMe possesses a wealth of genetic data, a resource that, if harnessed responsibly, could revolutionize personalized medicine.
The company’s future, uncertain yet brimming with opportunity, will unfold. But we are reminded of the delicate balance between innovation, ethics, conscious leadership and viability, which take concerted effort and a level of caring about our humanity.