NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Consumer genomics firm 23andMe is "optimistic and excited" about its future, thanks to an evident rebound in its ancestry testing business as well as the hope that it will be able to return health information to US customers by the year end.
Spokesperson Catherine Afarian reiterated this week that the company recently reached the milestone of genotyping its millionth customer, nearly two years after the Mountain View, California-based company received a letter from the US Food and Drug Administration that ordered the firm to cease offering its health reports to customers.
The letter prompted 23andMe to suspend the health component of its Personal Genome Service in the US indefinitely, a decision that caused a noticeable slump in sales, from which the firm has somewhat recovered.
"Sales slowed because of the FDA warning letter, and the rate of adding new customers was significantly impacted," Afarian acknowledged. "Still, we had 500,000 customers genotyped when we received the FDA letter, so the business is still doing quite well, as we have doubled the database since that time."
The decision to suspend the health portion of its business also came at a time when 23andMe experienced increasing competition in the consumer genomics space from Ancestry.com's AncestryDNA service, which launched in 2012. Ancestry.com also recently announced it had genotyped its millionth customer. 23andMe's service also competes with Family Tree DNA's Family Finder service, which has been on the market since 2010.
To enhance the genetic genealogy component of its offering, 23andMe last year partnered with MyHeritage, a Tel-Aviv, Israel-based family heritage website, giving 23andMe customers access to MyHeritage's family tree building tools and cache of historical records.
"We decided to partner with an outside group who are experts in that area," said Joanna Mountain, senior director of research at 23andMe. "They complemented our service very neatly, allowing customers to import their 23andMe trees over to MyHeritage in a seamless manner," she said. "Customers can do genetic genealogy on our site, and can do more traditional genealogy on the MyHeritage site."
According to Mountain, the services have been compatible since January.
While access to MyHeritage's tools and records may have made 23andMe's offering more competitive with Ancestry.com's AncestryDNA service, some industry observers maintain that the company offers various, unique tools that have allowed it to retain customer interest.
"In my opinion, there are two very solid features that 23andMe has that the other companies either lack or don't do as well as 23andMe does," said Tim Janzen, a genetic genealogy community leader and co-founder of the Institute for Genetic Genealogy.
"23andMe's Ancestry Composition performs the best at predicting percentages of ethnic or ancestral components, particularly at the speculative setting, in my opinion," said Janzen. "Ancestry Composition also provides chromosome painting which is a major feature that neither Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.com provide."
Chromosome painting allows users to visualize their chromosomes based on the regional origins of various segments, enabling customers of mixed ancestry to determine, for instance, which pieces of their chromosomes may have been inherited from various ancestors.
Another unique feature that 23andMe offers is the ability to compare matches in a chromosome browser, meaning that customers can see which chromosomal segments different matches share. "This feature is quite valuable for genetic genealogists," said Janzen. He noted that Ancestry.com does not offer such tools.
"I am frankly amazed that 23andMe has sold as many kits as they have since the FDA shut down the health-related portion of their business," said Janzen. "I think that this shows the strength of the genetic genealogy consumer market. In any case, I think that if the FDA hadn't stepped in and shut down the health-related portion of their business that they may have sold twice as many kits as they have currently sold."
CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist and co-founder of IGG, held similar opinions about 23andMe's ancestry service features.
"Most experienced genetic genealogists consider 23andMe's Ancestry Composition's admixture predictions superior to the others," said Moore. "They are the only company that maps our admixture segment-by-segment across our chromosomes, a feature I would not want to be without for my analysis and research," she said. "Additionally, 23andMe offers the most comprehensive overview when compared to the other tests since they include the haplogroup information along with their many other features."
Moore also praised 23andMe's Countries of Ancestry feature as being "very effective for getting a quick overview of aggregated data at the country-specific level" — something she said is not available elsewhere. "This helps to both confirm and clarify the admixture predictions," said Moore.
"For instance, if Ancestry Composition predicts Scandinavian ancestry, then I can go to Countries of Ancestry to see whether it is Swedish or Norwegian," she said. "I have also frequently used it to quickly find shared ancestry between African Americans and those with recent roots in Africa. This can be a very powerful discovery."
Liike Janzen, Moore also noted the presence of a Chromosome Browser, a feature that is lacking among some competitors' offerings.
"Like Family Tree DNA, 23andMe has been a citizen-scientist-friendly environment from inception," said Moore. "Unfortunately, Ancestry's interface does not allow for this same level of scientific inquiry and independent analysis, requiring the tester to accept things at face value without reproducibility," she said.
23andMe's Mountain said that the company will continue to create and implement new tools for the genetic genealogy community, similar to those described by Janzen and Moore, and cited the company's role in the development of the industry. 23andMe launched its service in November 2007, she noted, years before Family Tree DNA, Ancestry.com, and National Geographic were able to launch similar offerings.
"We have been groundbreaking in developing reports and tools that allow people to learn about their ancestry," Mountain maintained. "We were the first company to offer a relative finding tool, we were the first to offer chromosome painting," she said. "We like to think that we differentiate ourselves through our innovation."
Afarian also stressed that the company has been transparent about its ancestry reports, noting it has published a white paper on its ancestry composition tool. "We want to move the entire industry forward," said Afarian. "We want the entire industry to be more accurate and more transparent."
Moving the industry forward also means reaching more markets. Over the past year, 23andMe has launched its test in both Canada and the UK, and offers it directly in a number of EU countries, including Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Sweden, and the Netherlands. In Canada, the UK, and these EU countries, customers receive both health information and ancestry reports. 23andMe also ships its US product, without health information, to 56 countries worldwide, Afarian said. She added that the Canada and UK launches have "definitely exceeded our expectations," and noted that the company has supported its international efforts with local PR and advertising.
Ancestry.com's AncestryDNA service has also become available in the UK and Canada this year, in addition to Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand.
David Mittelman, current CSO at Tute Genomics and former CSO at Family Tree DNA, said that the launch of 23andMe's full Personal Genome Service, including health information, in Canada and the UK, demonstrated the firm's renewed momentum in the consumer genomics market.
"I do think that 23andMe has rebounded," said Mittelman. "First, the FDA decision pushed them to globalize their operation and they have now gained traction in Canada and the UK," he said. He also cited various research collaborations announced with major pharmaceutical companies as well as the establishment of a therapeutics group earlier this year as further evidence of the firm's forward motion.
"I think that the new company direction makes a lot of sense — developing drugs. With a valuation of just over $1 billion, they definitely need to do something big to keep things growing," Mittelman said. "Perhaps the best way that any of these companies can differentiate themselves in user experience and the tools that they offer. I think 23andMe offers the best user experience right now."
Some industry observers, though, believe that 23andMe might not truly rebound until it is able to again offer the health portion of its test in the US.
"I don't think that 23andMe has rebounded in the consumer space," said Roberta Estes, author of the blog DNAeXplained. "I would suggest that the majority of their revenue is based on their other medically related activities that revolve around using the DNA of their customers who tested either for health and/or genealogy," she said.
According to Estes, though 23andMe was first in the consumer genomics market, the company has "not developed any new tools for the genealogy client in a long time." She added that the firm's "liaison with MyHeritage suggests that they won't." She also called 23andMe's interface "cumbersome and not intuitive," stating it requires customers to request communications with their matches and then again request to compare their shared DNA. "That additional two-step process is in addition to what any of the two other primary testing companies require," she said.
At the same time, she praised some of 23andMe's existing tools, such as Family Inheritance Advanced, which enables customers to fully triangulate their matches. "You can see not only who you match, but who your matches match that you match as well — and you can see the matching segments." Estes also said that 23andMe's ethnicity tool "seems to be quite sensitive to picking up small amounts of minority admixture," and noted that its chromosome painting feature is also useful to genetic genealogists, allowing users to see where admixture from a certain region of the world resides on their DNA.
In terms of the consumer genomics market, Estes said that it is the health portion of 23andMe's test that will continue to differentiate the firm from other players.
"Each of the testing companies has something that sets them apart from the rest — some way they excel or something that compels people to test with them either exclusively or in addition to the rest," said Estes. "For 23andMe, that was their health information and testing, which they cannot offer now, at least in the US."
23andMe did secure FDA clearance for a health report related to Bloom Syndrome in February, and Afarian said that the company still anticipates returning health information to customers by the end of this year in some way.
"There is a very clear path on how to move forward with additional reports," said Afarian. "It won't be the same experience that we offered before, but we will have a healthy set of reports that we can return to customers," she said.
Afarian noted that the company recently appointed Scott Andress as director of product design as part of this overhaul of the health-related portion of its business, to create an "experience that will look and feel different" from what 23andMe reported to customers about their health in the past.
"We remain optimistic and excited about the future," she said.