Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

If DNA is destiny, then Anne Wojcicki is in the right business.

She is the co-founder and chief executive of 23andMe, a Silicon Valley startup that offers a $99 DNA test, as easy as spitting into a tube, that provides detailed genetic information from disease risk to family lineage.

In a recent interview at 23andMe’s office in Mountain View, Calif., Wojcicki (pronounced wo-JIT-skee) discussed the Silicon Valley girls’ club, the ties connecting her marriage and her business, and why she is convinced that personal genetics will change health care.

What follows are excerpts from that interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q: In the last five years, 23andMe has mapped the genotype of 475,000 people. What do you expect to happen in the next five years?

A: Genetics is going to be a ubiquitous part of health care. I think that everyone is going to get their genome. At some point, health care is going to reimburse for it. And you’re going to hear stories of people really taking ownership of health prevention, directed by their genome, and hear less and less the fear of “Oh, my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s. It’s a horrible disease I hope I never get.”

Q: But you’re not yet halfway to your goal of 1 million people being genotyped, which you have said would be the tipping point that moves medicine into the molecular era. What has held people back?

A: We’ll hit a million sometime in the first quarter of next year. There are a lot of misperceptions about genetics. But there’s a big societal shift where we’re putting the onus of your health onto you, the individual. One of the best aspects of health care reform is it starts to emphasize prevention.

Q: Isn’t a big reason people are hesitant to get a DNA test because they’re scared about what they would find out?

A: I blame that on our medical system. We have been trained not to think about our health care until there’s a problem. Education’s a big part of it, and making sure people understand that if you have a genetic risk for a disease, it doesn’t mean it’s deterministic. Every couple of weeks, someone writes in and says, ‘23andMe saved my life.’ It’s a really important piece of the puzzle in an unsolved medical mystery.

Q: Did Angelina Jolie’s publicity about her genetic risk for breast cancer and her mastectomy help?

A: It definitely made people ask us to test for this, and it definitely made people aware that, wow, your genetic information can lead to pretty significant medical decisions.

Q: Is there a concern this type of information will lead to excess medical testing?

A: My hope here is that as genetics becomes part of health care, it can help. For example, right now all women over 40 or 50 get a mammogram, but clearly not all women have the same risk. So how can you use genetics to say this is a group of people who are high-risk and get the screen and this is a group of people who should delay it?

Q: Preventive measures are easier to take for some diseases, like diabetes or skin cancer. But what if someone is at risk for something like Alzheimer’s?

A: I’ve found it motivates people to be as healthy as possible. There’s enough data showing that the fitter you are, the better you eat, the more likely you are to stay healthy longer. And knowledge is always good. If I know I’m at genetically high risk of Alzheimer’s, maybe I don’t plan to retire at 80, and maybe I’m more proactive about where I’m going to live and who’s going to take care of me.

Q: What have you personally discovered from genotyping?

A: I’m at higher risk for breast cancer, and that made me more religious about not drinking alcohol. My husband is at high risk for Parkinson’s. People who know that they’re high risk for something want to get proactively involved. My husband is very involved in disease research.

Q: Speaking of your husband, Sergey Brin, a Google founder, you two are separated. Since both he and Google are investors in 23andMe, how will the split affect the company?

A: Sergey’s incredibly supportive of what we’re doing and he encourages me all the time to push the envelope. We’re very good friends. We biked to work together this morning. Sergey likes to think in a different way about the world. And I can’t say enough good things about what Google Ventures has done for us.

Q: You give people the option to share their genetic data anonymously with researchers from academia, government and the pharmaceutical industry for studies. Do people agree to do that?

A: A majority do it. We’re creating a resource for humanity and we don’t want to be the only ones who are getting access to it. As many people as possible should get access to that data.

Q: What if insurance companies try to get people’s genetic information to determine their eligibility for coverage?

A: Employment and health insurance are now protected by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Long-term care coverage is a gray area and I think that’s where there needs to be protection.


Q: You have deep roots in Silicon Valley since childhood, when you lived on the Stanford campus. How has innovation here changed?

A: When I grew up here, there was this divide between the Stanford world that was the academics who had a lot of radical ideas and the business people who knew how to execute. Now you have a lot of people who would have been an academic, but they come out with these insane ideas and start companies.

Q: How has the tech world changed over the last few years?

A: The Valley is so fun right now. It’s a little bit too fun.

Q: What does that mean?

A: There’s been so much success. Housing prices have gotten a little bit insane. Every so often it’s like, “Can we just have a normal dinner and talk about something normal? Why do houses have to fly?”

But it’s a really fun, supportive spirit. I read stuff about the old days when people, especially women, used to be competitive. I saw Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer the other day at Marissa’s Halloween party. There’s real community support.

Q: The three of you are some of the most prominent women in Silicon Valley, but overall, the tech world has a dearth of women. How has that affected your career?

A: I still meet old-school scientists who are like, “Oh honey, women aren’t good at science.” You kind of dismiss them as insane. I feel that gender balance in the work environment is actually the best recipe for success. But if you look at my engineering team, it’s not balanced, and it 100 percent should be.

Q: You have a young son and daughter. How do you teach them about these issues?

A: I became very acutely aware of how language is used around women and men; people always say, “Oh, her outfit is so cute.” I’m more of an advocate for balance. I emphasize to them that they’re problem-solvers; they can be cute and wearing adorable outfits, but fundamentally they’re problem-solvers.

That mindset is like your health. Your destiny is not determined. You have tons of potential and you’re given a certain number of tools in life. What you are going to create with that?