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The Google of Spit

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Wojcicki grew up in Palo Alto, the youngest child of a Stanford physics professor and a journalism teacher, the kind of parents who would take their three daughters to an all-you-can-eat salad bar and make them share plates. Easily bored, she has passed through health fads at warp speed: She gorged on low-calorie Snackwell cookies in college but more recently discovered the benefits of fasting. At 23andMe, there’s CrossFit three days a week and yoga on Tuesdays, and a sports masseuse sets up in the office every week.

But Wojcicki was always rebellious, a younger sister impatient with people telling her what to do. In this, she was temperamentally well matched to Brin. On their first date, she told the Times of London, the couple went Rollerblading in New York; one time, after taking circus classes, Brin called her up: “Want to learn how to throw knives?” he asked.

Though her parents disapproved of her joining a hedge fund upon graduating from Yale, Wall Street was a good fit. Wojcicki loved the swagger of finance, the macho pose she characterizes as “I’m so fucking awesome,” but she didn’t see anything like that dynamism in the business of health care. Researchers guarded discoveries from their peers, slowing the pace of cures. Pharmaceutical companies cared more about selling the greatest number of drugs than they did about innovating therapies for maximum efficiency. “ ‘Yeah,’ ” she says during our talk, in the hey-guy tone of a pharmaceutical marketer, “ ‘we know our drug doesn’t work on everyone; it’s not our problem to figure it out.’ ”

The bright spot was biotech—genetics companies in particular. Before the completion of the Human Genome Project, geneticists could test for a very few, rare, heritable diseases, like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. After it, scientists could “see” the whole thing: 3.2 billion pairs of nucleic acids, arranged in tangled, dreadlocked threads. But what most of the genes meant, how they worked, which ones caused disease, and under what circumstances—this was entirely unknown. Big Data gave scientists the tools they needed to explore the genome in a meaningful way.

“It was so exciting,” Wojcicki remembers. “You could see the revolution coming.” The earliest discoveries were based on small sample sizes, in the thousands or tens of thousands, but “I saw that there was this potential: What if you could get millions and millions of people to share their data?” At the time, Wojcicki was already dating Brin. “The rest of your life is optimized because of Big Data,” she says today. “But it isn’t for health care, and that’s fundamentally the most important thing for you.”

Wojcicki may be Google royalty, but she’s also a civilian with two small children and uses Amazon all the time. The company “knows exactly what I want before I log in. Literally. ‘Oh, you’ve been buying Star Wars and princesses and camera equipment.’ They just know! Based on my past. Why isn’t health care like that? They should totally say, ‘Hey, you’ve been eating this, you’ve been exercising that amount, your genetics this. Hey! Here’s some recommendations for you.’ ”

Wojcicki launched 23andMe with $9 million, about half from Google, and two missions. The first, according to the executive summary by Wojcicki and her co-founder, Linda Avey, was to give people access to their own genetic information. “It’s theirs,” Avey told me over coffee in Palo Alto one morning. “It belongs to them. Get rid of the paternalism.” This goal had undeniable Silicon Valley sex appeal, the spit test a perfect holiday gift for the self-obsessed technophile. In the company’s first several years, Rupert Murdoch spit, as did Yo-Yo Ma, Eva Longoria, and Jimmy and Warren Buffett (the test discovered no relation).

The second goal was “creating the world’s largest secure, private database of genotypic and phenotypic information that can be used for comparison analysis and research.” This was a much harder sell. For one thing, it was difficult to explain. It raised questions about privacy and the ownership of intimate human material that evoked the various misdeeds of history’s racist eugenicists. And then there were the questions prompted by the company’s business model, which makes the database its profit center—an information mine, in essence, that charges fees for use. What are the ethical parameters of a system in which a user pays to hand over rights to his or her genetic data and then stands by as a company profits from it? 23andMe safeguards user identity by keeping names, credit-card numbers, and addresses separate from the genetic data itself, and it says a customer can withdraw from the database at any time. Nevertheless, the company’s own terms of use contain an explicit warning: “Genetic information you share with others could be used against your interests.”


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