DNA Firm Ancestry Appeals to Big Tech Executives

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Genealogy is big business – and about to grow – as evidenced by the purchase of investment firm Blackstone in December 2020 Ancestry for $ 4.7 billion. The announcement Thursday (September 16) that Ancestry is appointing former Amazon and Facebook executives to senior positions at the company further advanced the matter.

This development renews the debate about commercializing genetic data and how it can be monetized, with everyone from Big Pharma to the FBI asking for access.

In a declaration, Ancestry said, “Brian Donnelly, former head of diagnostics and genomics at Amazon, has been appointed senior vice president and general manager of AncestryDNA, and Ashish Nayyar, senior director of data science at Facebook, has been appointed senior vice president and general manager of AncestryDNA. appointed data manager. Additionally, Heather Friedland, senior vice president of Ancestry, has been promoted to Product Manager. The company claims to have over 3 million paying subscribers.

Ancestry President and CEO Deborah Liu said, “We are delighted to welcome these three exceptional thought leaders to our leadership team, each of whom brings a wealth of experience to the team. both within Ancestry and other leading technology companies. I am confident that together we will continue to drive innovation and growth so that we can enable even more journeys of personal discovery on a global scale. “

A very controversial question is what form these DNA-fueled “journeys of personal discovery” will take in the future. For example, while not a lucrative proposition, the FBI used a commercial DNA database to catch criminals, including the notorious Golden State Slayer.

DNA testing and drug development

In its genomic rival 23andMe, which became public through an ad hoc acquisition company (SPAC) in June, genetic research is included in its terms. Members can opt out if they do not wish the data to be used for drug development.

At the June SPAC, CNBC reported that the company “continues to question consumer privacy as it collects genetic information from millions of individuals … as it dives deeper into drug development.”

In the same article, 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki said, “You can’t make discoveries in a population if you don’t involve these people. We need the right customers and to represent the product to them in the right way. “

Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline has invested $ 300 million in 23andMe.

Biotechnology is the big money game with genetic databases. Say “data is new oil” in a January 2021 segment, “60 minutes” reported that although Ancestry declined to be interviewed, it told CBS that “Ancestry does not sell consumer DNA data” and “we have no for-profit research partnerships.”

For its part, Ancestry launched a genetic screening product called AncestryHealth in August 2020, only to to cease the product line six months later, in January 2021.

Innovation and acceleration

Where does that leave Ancestry and its new Big Tech hires?

It depends. Like the Los Angeles Times noted, “It is naive to think that Blackstone would spend nearly $ 5 billion on an asset he does not intend to exploit,” quoting Vanderbilt University professor of health law and policy. , Ellen W. Clayton.

According to Ancestry, “in his role as the head of AncestryDNA business, [Brian] Donnelly will strive to advance scientific innovation and develop Ancestry’s long-term vision and global strategy for AncestryDNA to drive growth, enhance the customer experience and maximize its impact on the whole. of the company.

In his new role as Chief Data Officer, former Facebook Director Ashish Nayyar “will be responsible for defining strategies to govern and manage data across the enterprise to directly support product innovation, growth business and Ancestry’s future value creation, ”the company said.

As new product manager, Heather Friedland “will accelerate the company’s product innovation”.

For now at least, it looks like innovations in commercial DNA testing may focus on subscriptions, where companies in the industry currently make most of their money.

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