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AncestryDNA Aims to Have 1.3M Genotyped by Year End

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Ancestry.com is on track to have 1.3 million customers genotyped by the end of 2015 as marketing investments, as well as the "positive network effects" of having a larger database, propel forward its AncestryDNA consumer genomics business.

However, while it may be dominating the market in terms of sales, some industry observers argue that the company has work to do before it can challenge the quality of services offered by its chief rivals, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA.

Ancestry.com provided an update on its genetic genealogy business when it reported its first quarter financial results last week. CEO Tim Sullivan said in an earnings call that the Provo, Utah-based company now has about 850,000 people in its AncestryDNA database.

Sullivan noted that the first quarter was AncestryDNA's second straight quarter in which it added 150,000 members to the database since the business launched its genotyping microarray-based genetic genealogy service three years ago.

Given this performance, Sullivan said that AncestryDNA should have about a million members in the database by its second quarter earnings call. And should the firm continue to draw 150,000 new customers in the ensuing two quarters, if not more, AncestryDNA looks set to have at least 1.3 million samples genotyped by year end, Ken Chahine, general manager of AncestryDNA, said this week.

"If the rate of 150,000 samples per quarter continues, that estimate is reasonable," Chahine said. "That seems to be in the ballpark, assuming nothing unusual happens," he said.

"We have invested a lot and we do consider ourselves to be the leader in the consumer genomics space," Chahine added.

As Sullivan outlined on the call, AncestryDNA entered the consumer genomics space in 2012 because it saw an opportunity to "create a new family history experience" that is "fun, easy, and inexpensive."

The service relies on Illumina genotyping chips that are processed at the San Diego vendor's headquarters. The service is currently being marketed at a price of $99 per kit. Customers provide a saliva sample to AncestryDNA via the kit which is then processed. AncestryDNA clients are provided with biogeographical estimates of their genetic heritage, as well as lists of other customers who match them in varying degrees, from close parent-child relationships to distant cousins.

The success of the AncestryDNA service has allowed the company to introduce new features as its database swells. Drawing on the genealogical pedigrees of its customers and their DNA test results, AncestryDNA recently added New Ancestor Discoveries, an enhancement that provides users with a list of probable ancestors based solely on their array data.

Sullivan called the new feature a "breakthrough" that leverages the AncestryDNA database with the firm's genetic-relatedness algorithms, its collection of family trees, historical records, and user contributed family history memories. He said that AncestryDNA has received "positive early feedback" since it launched the feature.

He specifically tied the growth of the database to the introduction of the feature. "New Ancestor Discoveries is a great example of how this service is going to continue to get better and better as we grow our database and begin to enjoy some real positive network effects," said Sullivan.

Chahine added that New Ancestor Discoveries is a "sign of things to come" for the company, especially since as it approaches the milestone of a million samples. "Our ability to make better discoveries and understand population genetics is really where the scale and network effect is coming into play," he said. "From a product standpoint, New Ancestor Discoveries is really the beginning of the things we can do with DNA."

AncestryDNA is predicting future growth not only on the information its service delivers as it expands its database, but also on presence in other regional markets, as well as marketing investments. The firm launched its services earlier this year in the UK and Ireland, and it anticipates launches in Canada and Australia later this year.

Chahine said that the company expects the Canadian and Australian launches to occur in the second or third quarter, meaning that sales from those regions could bolster its overall performance for the year.

It is unclear how much revenue the business has generated for Ancestry.com. CFO Howard Hochhauser said on the call that Ancestry.com generated $23 million in product revenue in the first quarter, up 39 percent over the first quarter of 2014. Chahine said that product revenue includes DNA kit sales, genealogical research services, software, and other products and services, though DNA kit sales were the largest driver of this line item.

Ancestry.com's total revenues, mainly generated by subscription sales, rose 7 percent to $165 million year over year. According to Hochhauser, the company's cross-sell is about 10 percent, meaning that about 10 percent of customers who purchase a kit also subscribe to its online genealogy service.

Hochhauser further noted that AncestryDNA spent around $10 million on advertising in 2014.

Chahine said that AncestryDNA's marketing push includes TV commercials, online advertisements, and email campaigns, and said that the company will continue to invest in marketing this year. "We are in an experimental phase of trying to find the best way to promote the product," he said.

"This is a category that's generating a lot of buzz," Hochhauser said on the call. "We made some investments last year in brand awareness … that are certainly benefiting the category this year," he said. "Of course, as the database gets larger and larger, the product experience improves based on that," he said. "We continue to be optimistic that this is a growing category."

While some industry observers acknowledge that AncestryDNA has become a leader, if not the leader, of the consumer genomics market in terms of sales, they caution that high kit sales may not necessarily translate to leadership within the field of genetic genealogy. Instead, two observers who spoke with GenomeWeb said that they hope AncestryDNA will add several features, such as a chromosome browser, to its service that other offerings already provide.

"If you measure it in raw sales, Ancestry either is or will be the sales giant, [and] because of the sheer number of the people who are testing through Ancestry, you will very likely have matches," said Roberta Estes, author of the genetic genealogy blog DNAeXplained.   

"But if you're measuring by usefulness, accuracy, and the ability to utilize the DNA matches and results to prove your ancestry to a particular ancestor — they are dead last," she said.

Estes noted that Family Tree DNA and 23andMe, as well as GEDMatch, a free website that offers tools for DNA and genealogical research, offer chromosome browsers, which allow genetic genealogists to pinpoint the segments they share with their matches and relate them to common ancestors.

While Estes credited AncestryDNA with having "brought genetic genealogy to the forefront of genealogy research," thanks to a "huge marketing arm and push," she cautioned that the "simplicity of DNA testing and results is not exactly as their advertising juggernaut leads people to believe. But then, neither is genealogy," she added.

Estes provided AncestryDNA's New Ancestor Discoveries feature as an example of what she called "inferential genetics."

"Ancestry uses your DNA results and the trees of the people you match to infer you have a common ancestor with those people," said Estes. "About half of the time, they are right," she said. "The other half, either the new ancestor you are given is not an ancestor, but is related in some other way, or is not related in any discernable way."

According to Estes, this world of inferential genetics is equally as accurate an inferential ancestors based on the trees of others at Ancestry.com.

"Ancestry gives you feel good trees and ancestors that may or may not be accurate," said Estes.  "What you do with them is another matter entirely, assuming you figure out that you need to do anything at all," she said. "People who want quick and simple answers even if they are not accurate will not look any further than Ancestry-supplied trees and DNA ancestors," Estes noted. "Those who want more, to actually have accurate, confirmed trees and proven genetic ancestors will quickly learn that they need to test elsewhere as well and utilize other tools within the industry."

For this reason, Estes recommends that serious geneticists test at all three companies in order to make use of their various tools.

"I am very hopeful that Ancestry will step up to the plate and provide at least equivalent tools to the other testing companies," said Estes. "I feel they have a moral imperative to do so, especially given their size in the marketplace."

Tim Janzen, a genetic genealogy community leader, who together with CeCe Moore heads the Institute for Genetic Genealogy, seemed to hold similar opinions toward AncestryDNA.

"I think that Ancestry.com is going to be an increasingly strong player in the autosomal genetic genealogy arena in terms of overall sales," said Janzen. He credited the fairly high percentage of AncestryDNA customers who have online pedigrees available, as well as the New Ancestor Discoveries feature as being particularly helpful in his research.

Still, he said that genetic genealogists could "do a lot more than what Ancestry.com is providing for us if they were to give us the matching segment data." Janzen said that the information that customers obtain from New Ancestor Discoveries is "simply the tip of the iceberg" in terms of what a genetic genealogist could do if they had the matching segment data as well as access to all of the pedigree charts available for matches at Ancestry.com.

"Fortunately, a reasonable percentage of my matches at Ancestry.com have been willing to transfer their raw data files to GEDmatch and/or Family Tree DNA's Family Finder database, where I can review the matching segment data," Jansen said.

"Ancestry.com is currently the leader in terms of providing pedigree charts for our matches and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future," Janzen added. "However, the lack of matching segment data at Ancestry.com will continue to frustrate genetic genealogists and will significantly undermine the product's utility in the long term."

When asked whether AncestryDNA would eventually add a chromosome browser, Chahine said that the company had no immediate plans to do so.

"While we are sensitive to the concerns of some customers, at this point it is a small group of people who are asking for that feature," he said. "Our focus continues to be on making family history mainstream so that you can discover who you are easier."

Genetic genealogist Blaine Bettinger believes that the continued growth of AncestryDNA should benefit the field in general, even if the company does not offer the same features as its competitors.

"Having a big database at AncestryDNA benefits everyone, I believe," said Bettinger. "Whether it is because you've tested at AncestryDNA yourself or because you've transferred the raw data to Family Tree DNA or GEDmatch, the average test taker is more likely to find close relatives now than ever before," he said.

"Although 1 million is a good start," Bettinger said of AncestryDNA's database, "we really need databases even larger than this to maximize genetic genealogy. Who knows what geneticists and genealogists could do with a database of 5 million genomes?"

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