Latest News

Ancestry Taps Big Tech Execs as DNA Firm Looks to Deepen Its Roots

Genealogy is big business — and poised to get bigger — as demonstrated by investment firm Blackstone’s December 2020 purchase of Ancestry for $4.7 billion. Further driving the point home was the announcement on Thursday (Sept. 16) that Ancestry is appointing former Amazon and Facebook executives to top positions at the company.

That development is renewing the debate about the commercialization of genetic data and how it may be monetized, with everyone from Big Pharma to the FBI asking for access.

In a statement, Ancestry said, “Brian Donnelly, formerly head of Diagnostics and Genomics at Amazon, has been named Senior Vice President and General Manager of AncestryDNA, and Ashish Nayyar, Facebook’s Senior Director of Data Science, has been appointed Chief Data Officer.” Additionally, Ancestry Senior Vice President Heather Friedland has been promoted to Chief Product Officer. The company says it has over 3 million paying subscribers.

Ancestry President and CEO Deborah Liu said, “We are thrilled to welcome these three outstanding thought leaders to our executive bench, each of whom bring a wealth of experience from 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 empower even more journeys of personal discovery globally.”

What shape these DNA-fueled “journeys of personal discovery” will take going forward is a hotly contested issue. For example, while not a money-making proposition, the FBI has used a commercial DNA database to catch criminals, most notably the notorious Golden State Killer.

DNA Tests and Drug Development

Over at genomic rival 23andMe, which went public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in June, genetic research is built into its terms. Members can opt out if they don’t want data used for drug development.

At the time of the June SPAC, CNBC reported that the company “continues to face questions about consumer privacy as it gathers genetic information on millions of individuals … as it dives deeper into drug development.”

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

Drug maker GlaxoSmithKline has invested $300 million in 23andMe.

Biotech is the big money play with genetic databases. Saying “data is the new oil” in a January 2021 segment, “60 Minutes” reported that while Ancestry declined to be interviewed it told CBS that “Ancestry does not sell consumer DNA data” and “we do not have any for-profit research partnerships.”

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

Innovation and Acceleration

Where does this leave Ancestry and its new hires from the world of Big Tech?

That depends. As the Los Angeles Times said, “It’s naive to think Blackstone would spend almost $5 billion for an asset it has no plans to exploit,” quoting Vanderbilt University law and health policy professor Ellen W. Clayton.

According to Ancestry, “In his role leading the AncestryDNA business, [Brian] Donnelly will work to advance scientific innovation and develop Ancestry’s long-term vision and global strategy for AncestryDNA to drive growth, improve the customer experience, and maximize its impact on the overall business.”

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

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

For the moment at least it looks like innovations in commercial DNA testing may want to focus on subscriptions, from which firms in the sector are currently making most of their money.

You may also like

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in:Latest News