NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Exploragen, a self-described DNA lifestyle company, is preparing to roll out a menu of applications accessible via Helix, according to its founders.
CEO Ron Andrews said that the Bay Area startup has designed a suite of apps that rely on users' next-generation sequencing data to generate personalized insights related to biological sleep traits, caffeine metabolism, and other indications.
The company describes its first app, called SlumberType, on its website, as a way to discover how one's DNA is associated with sleep patterns, such as duration and quality of sleep, as well as whether "one is naturally more of a 'morning' or 'evening' person." It also includes accompanying tools to track and manage one's sleep, such as "sleep sounds" and custom alarms.
Exploragen expects to launch SlumberType later this month, ahead of Helix's official launch in August. A number of other newly formed companies, such as Austin Texas-based Insitome have cropped up in recent years to serve what they believe will be a swiftly growing market enabled by the Helix marketplace.
"Using biology, genomic data, and machine learning tools we are able to grind out some pretty fun things," said Andrews. "We want to make DNA fun, useful, and enlighten people to use their DNA to better their decision making and lifestyles."
Andrews was president of Life Technologies' Genetic Sciences Division, a $2 billion business, until 2015, when it was acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific. During his tenure at Life Tech, the company acquired Navigenics, a first-generation, direct-to-consumer firm that employed Sara Riordan and Shannon Kieran as genetic counselors. Riordan and Kieran are now head of science and head of operations at Exploragen, respectively. They cofounded the firm with Andrews last year.
Life Tech "acquired Navigenics to help us consumerize our world of oncology genomics," said Andrews. "After that company got acquired by Thermo Fisher, the three of us decided that we were going to make our mark in the personal genomics world."
Given the founders' extensive pedigree in the consumer genomics space, they said there remains a public reluctance to DNA-based offerings, which some people continue to be intimidated by, either because of its association with disease risk or concerns about data usage and security. As such, the aim of Exploragen is to foster an environment where customers can gain insight to their data in a way that empowers them as consumers.
"We want to make DNA more accessible to everyone, and something that we integrate into our everyday lives, as opposed to back in 2008 what might have been more of a novelty purchase," said Kieran. "This is something that we now feel is accessible to everybody and with the right applications could also be useful to everybody."
Along with Andrews, Riordan, and Kieran, Exploragen's team includes Carl Watts, its head of technology, a former senior software engineer at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Andrews, Riordan, and Kieran are also cofounders of Healdsburg, California-based Vinome, another DNA lifestyle company that aims to sell apps designed to "take the guesswork out of buying wine," according to its website. Watts is Vinome's senior software analyst and architect.
In terms of the Exploragen team, Ruby Gadelrab, former vice president of commercial marketing at 23andMe, has also come aboard as its head of commercial strategy.
Gadelrab credited 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and other first-wave consumer genomics companies with laying the groundwork among the public for DNA lifestyle companies like Exploragen. In recent years the databases of 23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, and other companies that have specifically catered to an interest in genetic genealogy and ancestry testing have swelled into the millions as testing became more popular. At the same time, more data linking genetic data to lifestyle decisions has also been published, providing Exploragen with the resources to develop its applications.
"We are starting from a place of fear with the public, but I think that 23andMe and Ancestry have taken it to a place where the public realized that there are other things we can learn from our genome," said Gadelrab. "We are getting to the point where utility surpasses fear, and once utility surpasses fear, you will see an explosion in the consumer space."
While Andrews declined to elaborate on the specifics of Exploragen's other applications in development ahead of their launches, he did offer some general comments. "We are very intrigued by caffeine metabolism," Andrew said. "There is a suite of opportunities around nutrition and fitness, how the combination of genomics and nutrition and athletics plays out," he said. "All this information can enable us to perform at our peak longer."
Like other emerging consumer-facing companies, such as Insitome or Embark Veterinary, Exploragen's team is focused on enhancing the customer experience, including mobile applications. "We provide more than just a report that says you have got these genes and it could mean this," said Andrews. "We have interactive capabilities that allow us to play into the genetic data that we are providing [customers], enabling them to use it in their lives to improve things they do on a daily basis," he said. "It's not static."
Beyond initial applications in the area of sleep and caffeine metabolism, Exploragen envisions becoming a partner for other companies looking to enhance their clients' experiences. "You can imagine a world where people select skin care products based on their genetic markers," Gadelrab said. "The question is how do we integrate genetic expertise with those consumer companies so we can help them create valuable products?"
However, while it wades into the consumer market, Exploragen will no doubt encounter skepticism, not only from those who are concerned about having their genetic data to begin with, but about the accuracy provided by its applications. Gadelrab said that the company will be transparent about the peer-reviewed scientific studies that underlie its various applications. But, moreover, she said that customers who choose to purchase its apps are more likely interested in the experience provided, versus how robust the scientific data behind it is.
"Our experience of genetics has been in the medical space — clinical utility and analytical validity have strong numbers around them and people have to be right, because people are going to make medical decisions based on that information;" said Gadelrab.
"In the consumer world, people are willing to compromise on how much data there is behind something, provided you are transparent about it," she said. "We are targeting customers who are interested in new experiences, versus statistical data which is more important in the medical world," she continued. "It will get better over time. The utility will improve as more people get their genomes sequenced."
"If we were just depending on genetics, and we needed the statistical power of a genome-wide association study to drive a particular decision, we would be years away," said Andrews. "Unfortunately there will always be skeptics who don't want this to happen."