Genes as data

You’ve got big data in every cell of your body. Six billion base pairs of DNA per cell, to be exact. It’s all data–quantifiable, analyzable, discoverable. But is it monetizable? Paul Saarinen (Director of Digital Strategy, Yamamoto) and Scott Fahrenkrug (CEO, Recombinetics) think so. And they devoted a captivating SXSWi session to answering this and related questions. I couldn’t resist the chance to interview them. Maybe it’s in my genes? Enjoy.

How can the consumerization of genetic sequencing and analytics change the world?

Saarinen: We see a couple narratives coming out of our SXSW talk.

1. The abundant access to genetic data becoming the catalyst for greater awareness of data ownership, and a movement to reclaim our personal data

2. The creation of an opt-in data marketplace that allows people to license their data to help cure diseases, create drugs, make better products, streamline marketing and advertising budgets, but also see equity for their decision to share their data

3. Create the framework for our kids, and grandkids to live in society where anonymity, or choices in identity are still an available option for living  (Christopher Poole handles this topic well).

There are a lot of interesting debates going on right now about the roles of public versus private entities in innovation. Which side has led innovation in genetic sequencing, and is there a better model that would get us farther, faster?

Fahrenkrug: The DNA sequencing revolution is a shining example of how academia, government, and companies can come together to accomplish very big and important things.

You presented an interesting hypothetical scenario: A beer company learns that, based on a consumer’s genetic profile, they’re likely to have a strong aversion to bitter tastes (like beer). That company can now use that information to not waste money marketing to this individual. I see that as shared value; the company eliminates wasteful spending, and the consumer eliminates irrelevant advertising. Do you have any more examples of shared value?

Saarinen: The genetic predisposition to lactose intolerance vs. advertising for dairy products is probably the best example. Also predisposition to health related traits provides a venue for target marketing of products built around health management. For example, predisposition to type 2 diabetes could provide a rationale for target marketing of components of a healthy lifestyle, as well as discounted access to products the patient will eventually consume in large quantities, for example, blood sugar test strips.

I think we’re all hopeful that a customer-controlled marketplace will allow researchers access to the data to eliminate diseases.  Providing the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research an avenue to solicit anonymous genetic samples for their program could help fast forward research into the elimination of Parkinson’s.  What if a pharmaceutical company needed your data to create a new drug?  You could dictate the terms of the value exchange, and if it is successful, share in the financial success.

You mentioned that you’re involved in a side-startup in the genetic sequencing space, Miinome. What’s the idea behind the project?

Saarinen: We’re proposing a genetic equity trust that protects ownership and provides opt-in sharing of data with dividends for members. Think of us as a bank and broker to:

  • Philanthropic organizations
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Marketing organizations

Some marketing opportunities can return dividends to genetic equity holders. Within the next few weeks, we’ll have more information on how to get involved at (not up yet).

The potential health benefits of knowing one’s genetic data are pretty evident, but are there other types of benefits that will arise from better understanding of our genetic data?

Fahrenkrug: Other companies have already shown that consumers are interested in their own genetics for use in genealogy studies and to inform them about their predispositions to health problems. We think these are important, and along with member-directed data sharing can provide for social networking and cause oriented community building.

How has your interest in genetic data being reflected in the work you’re doing at Yamamoto?

Saarinen: My youngest daughter was born with a heart condition that required open heart surgery at four months of age.  That experience has shown me several missed opportunities in healthcare and medical technology business.  Yamamoto and MDC Partners have been very supportive in the incubation of some really amazing things that you will see in the near future.

Where should our readers go to learn more about some of the issues and ideas we’ve been talking about?

Saarinen: I think we were lucky to see several of them speak at SXSW this year.  Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, among others, with their work at Singularity UniversityChristopher Poole usually hits the nail on the head with his perspectives on identity, and where it is going in the future.  Science fiction writers like Bruce Sterling have dealt with these issues in their writings and speeches, as well.

The Conversation Index Vol. 3

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