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Consumer Genomics App Developer Insitome Prepares for Q2 Launch via Helix Marketplace


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Insitome, an Austin, Texas-based application developer, plans to debut its products for ancestry testing in the second quarter in parallel with the full launch of Helix's consumer genomics offering.

CEO Spencer Wells said in an interview that the company, one of several to partner with Helix to date, has developed a suite of initial products focused on ancestry that will compete with offerings from 23andMe,'s AncestryDNA service, and Family Tree DNA.

Moreover, because Helix clients will have their data generated via exome sequencing, rather than SNP chips, Insitome believes that it can offer customers a "more immersive experience" than what has been offered to date. This in turn may encourage Helix users to buy more applications and move consumer genomics beyond its current single test-single result paradigm, where customers send in a saliva sample and receive curated results in a few weeks.

"Most of the time, when someone orders one of these tests, whether it's [National Geographic's] Geno 2.0, or AncestryDNA, or 23andMe, it's one and done," said Wells. "It's a formal web experience, often a list, there's tons of text," he said. "They go in, maybe look at some maps, maybe share something on social media, and then they are done," said Wells. "Our vision as a company is to create more interactive experiences to keep people coming back," he added. "To do that we have to make their results relevant to everyday life."

Wells described Insitome's initial offering as being "not just about migration patterns, and percentages, but about what's relevant to you, what you have inherited from your ancestors" and said the new apps will be "ancestry-related but in a relatable way." He declined to elaborate further ahead of the launch.

Insitome was founded last year by Wells and Insitome COO Neeraj Rao. The firm maintains an office in downtown Austin and has eight full-time employees, including developers, designers and bioinformaticians. It's making its formal debut as a company this week at the South by Southwest conference, where Wells is hosting a panel discussion about consumer genomics.

Wells' experience in the consumer genomics market goes back to its very beginning at the start of the last decade. As the initiator and director of NatGeo's Genographic Project, he oversaw the introduction of STR-based Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA testing to track people's deep paternal and maternal ancestry. In 2012, NatGeo joined Family Tree DNA, 23andMe, and AncestryDNA in offering array-based ancestry testing, which provides, depending on the service, information about clients' ancestral admixture, Y-chromosome and mtDNA haplogroup assignment, and the ability to see and contact genetic relatives, as well as, in the case of 23andMe, some information about wellness and health.

All of these offerings retail at between $99 and $199, although can be considerably cheaper during various promotional offerings. For example, Ancestry offered its service for $69 during a Black Friday-Cyber Monday deal last November.

While Wells was mum on the details of Insitome's initial menu of apps, he confirmed that there would be several ancestry applications available to customers once they pay the upfront cost of having their DNA sequenced by Helix and formally enter into what the company refers to as its ecosystem of applications.

Insitome is not the only app developer working with Helix. Additional partners include Invitae, the Mayo Clinic, Good Start Genetics, and Vinome, which has developed an app that recommends wines to customers based on their genomic profile. Still, Insitome is the only Helix-partnered app developer designing multiple ancestry-related products that will compete with the top players in the consumer genomics market.

Helix had a "soft launch" last year when it began offering NatGeno's array-based Geno 2.0 service through its online architecture. It currently is still the company's sole offering.

Wells said that the Helix entry cost should be under $100, while its various ancestry apps, developed by Insitome, could cost anywhere between $10 and $40, depending on the complexity of the application, information delivered, and development time.

The ability to buy more information about oneself at a low price is part of Helix's business model, which is enabled by the company's sequencing technology.

"For us, it's great because all of the information we need to develop any app is there in the cloud, and so it turns this into a digital play," said Wells. "Whatever you are curious about, you can just download an app and get that information without ever having to spit again," he said. "That lends itself to having lots of products in the marketplace because different people are going to be interested in different things."

Of all the consumer genomics firms, Houston, Texas-based Family Tree DNA is a player that has arguably tried to address people's differing needs by offering a variety of NGS, array, and STR-based testing, enabling clients to select individual ancestry-related SNPs or sets of SNPs, called SNP packs, for testing. Wells acknowledged that Insitome's ancestry testing offering might be somewhat similar in concept, but noted that customers will still be able to obtain their desired results sooner, because the data has already been generated via exome sequencing.

"When you order a SNP pack, they still have to pull your DNA and do additional testing," said Wells. "It will take several weeks to get a result," he said. "Because your information is already up there in the cloud, you're going to get your information immediately."

It is the process of most consumer genomics services — obtaining a saliva sample by mail, sending it to a provider, and waiting for four to six weeks to upload results —that is slowing en masse adoption, Wells argues, even though the number of people tested continues to grow exponentially.

While it took a decade to see a million people tested, that number doubled within a year, and, Wells noted, AncestryDNA received orders for 1.4 million kits just in the fourth quarter of 2016. The company said in January that it has tested 3 million people since launching AncestryDNA in 2012. Wells estimates that about 5 million people have taken a consumer genomics test in total as of March 2017. But that is not yet the mainstream that Wells, and others, envision.

"The question is how do we get to 50 million?" said Wells. "I feel this is just the tip of the iceberg. The market is actually everybody." He added that Helix's model of sequencing once and analyzing in perpetuity should quicken that kind of adoption.

It's that kind of scope that has led Insitome Cofounder and COO Neeraj Rao to believe that Insitome's apps will not disrupt the existing marketplace, but rather enlarge it, meaning that the firm believes all ancestry testing services will continue to grow, rather than lose business to Insitome and Helix.

"The pie is going to grow for everybody," Rao said in an interview. "It's not like we are competing for the same 5 million people. It is now being opened up to a whole market beyond that," he said. "There will be more choices for people, so it's more of a landgrab at this point."

While Wells said that the current market is based around ancestry testing, as well as general curiosity, Insitome plans to eventually branch out into education, wellness, and other areas.

"It may not be in our case immediately focused on something health-related," noted Wells. "It could be wellness-related, it could be something in the athletic space, or something in the weight loss space," he said. "There are a lot of things we can do."

Those application efforts will be powered by the data Helix generates, Wells noted, as the availability of increasing numbers of whole exomes will provide the firm with a "tremendous amount of information," including low frequency and de novo mutations, that can be integrated into or form the basis for various new applications.

"It's baked into our business model," said Wells. "We are kind of an app factory," he said. "We have lots of ideas; there are about a dozen things we want to build before the end of the year."

Robert Green, professor of medicine and director of the Genomes2People research program at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and chairman of Helix's scientific advisory board, said in an interview that he believes the ancestry testing market served by Insitome's products will "remain huge," even while interest in wellness and medical applications grows.

"People are generally interested in their ancestry, DNA is a cool way to explore it, and that is going to continue," said Green, who is also taking part in the consumer genomics panel at SXSW. "I do think there is a huge market for health-related genomics, though, and I think there is going to be a lot of disruption as various companies try to establish markets," he added.

He stressed that while the desire for health and wellness apps is certainly there, developers must communicate what is scientifically valid and what is recreational as the market develops.

"That's in the best interest of the companies, because if companies sell things that mislead the public and are later shown to be silly or egregiously exaggerated, it hurts the entire field," said Green. "It hurts legitimate products; it hurts the notion of using genomics in health."

David Mittelman, a Houston, Texas-based geneticist and entrepreneur, who previously served as CSO at Family Tree DNA, said that in order to make consumer genomics truly mainstream, companies like Helix and Insitome need to "perfect simple user experiences," focusing on features that can be promoted through gamification and sharing.

"This is actually easier for ancestry where there is natural tendency to want to share you results to find relatives or encourage others to trace their past," Mittelman said. "It might be harder for medical testing," he added. "It is hard to imagine wanting to share that you are a carrier for genetic illness, for example." Mittelman noted that the market for wellness and fitness exists, noting that it too can "leverage gamification and social media to bring genetic testing to the masses."