When we look back 10, 15, or 30 years from now, there will be a day when we, or our kids, or our kids’ kids will say, “Why, of course we test for that.”
There are big ideas and then there are BIG ideas. Helix Co-Founders Justin Kao, James Lu, and Scott Burke are hard at work tackling the latter. Their goal: nothing short of empowering every person to improve their life by understanding their DNA.
The field of personal genomics is relatively new and, until recently, the idea didn’t make economic sense. But technological breakthroughs have sharply reduced the cost of sequencing an entire human-sized genome from roughly $100 million to do it the first time, to about $1,000 today. That decrease in cost has opened the way to thinking about how to proactively diagnose and treat patients by analyzing their genes to prevent or control potentially threatening medical conditions.
What part does Helix play in this burgeoning new industry? The company has opened up access to DNA by offering a variety of consumer products designed to give people insights into various aspects of their genetic makeup, from ancestry to health. Customers order products online and receive a DNA kit in the mail. When they send their sample back to the lab, Helix sequences the DNA, stores it securely, and supplies it through an API to third-party partners on Helix’s digital store that are selected by users when they buy products. These partners interpret the DNA information and provide the insights to customers through branded products.
For Justin, James, and Scott, this points to an exciting future where you will be able to use your genome as easily and naturally as you use location services on your phone.
We caught up recently with Helix’s founding trio to find out more about how they see the story coming together over the next few years.
Q: How did you land on the idea that ultimately became Helix?
Justin: I’ve always had a passion for healthcare. For a long time, I thought I was going to go to medical school to become a doctor. When I got to college, though, I found that I wasn’t in love with the rote memorization emphasized in the pre-med curriculum. Instead, I enjoyed the engineering mindset — the problem-solving aspect and learning how to apply principles to new situations. After college, I decided to spend my time in different parts of healthcare — consulting, business development, and investing. I spent almost five years as an investor looking for the right company to back in genomics, and I couldn’t find one. That ultimately led me to Helix. I had such a conviction that what we wanted to do was something valuable that needed to exist. It wasn’t that I was dead-set on starting a company, but rather that nothing existed to fill this need.
James: I came at it from the scientific perspective. I was always interested in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. When I later went to work at Merck, I got interested in working on treatments. That led me to want to understand how people were being treated in the healthcare system, and I went back to school and did my MD/PhD. What struck me was how much the genetics field had evolved during that short period. In the three years before my graduate work, the high-throughput DNA sequencing technology barely existed. Now, it was starting to permeate many biological fields. It blew my mind how much the field had changed.
Scott: I studied physics and have always been interested in large-scale computation challenges. I got hooked on programming and joined the nascent startup world in the early 1990s after graduating from Harvey Mudd College. My second job was at Sapient Health Network, which grew to be an integral part of WebMD. We learned how incredibly valuable it was for people to get access to health information and online communities for support. That experience made a deep impact on me, and when I met Justin and James many years later, I was immediately excited about Helix.
Q: You all took different professional paths to reach this point. Can you talk briefly about that?
James: I had a number of jobs when I was growing up but when Netscape came out, I helped start a web design company where we basically walked up and down the street in downtown Palo Alto, trying to find people who would hire us to build websites. That was when I was in high school. When I got to Stanford, it was a normal thing, actually, to be a part of this entrepreneurial community. It actually put a lot of structure on something that I’ve always been interested in.
Q: How do you think Moore’s Law has factored into the rapid evolution of your sector?
Justin: I remember when James called me in 2010 about something that was similar to the Helix idea. He was extrapolating from the Thousand Genomes Project. No one back then could even imagine a thousand genomes.
Scott: And, now, we could do a thousand people in a day.
Justin: So, when I was working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, we were working on a genetics experiment with maybe 10 thousand data points or so. I remember thinking, “How is anyone ever going to analyze this much data?” It sounded impossible. But 15 years later, technology has changed dramatically. We now crunch billions of data points easily.
Q: Let’s talk about the potential impact this can have on people’s lives. Can you give me an example of an application of personal genomics about which you’re particularly excited?
Scott: I think it’s going to be helpful to new parents. Nowadays, you take a blood sample of an infant in a hospital to look for metabolic disorders that you need to know about immediately. The day will come when that same activity generates a genome sequence that goes to your pediatrician, who by then is educated about the meaning of pediatric-onset genetic problems. It will be part of that first consultation. Having this information will change lives and will be something that is taken for granted.
Q: Change lives in that you’ll learn things that you need to know, which otherwise would be a surprise later on?
Scott: One of the school forms that parents fill out is to acknowledge you have been informed about sudden cardiac arrest. There are rare, sometimes tragic, cases of young athletes who faint or die during games with no prior history of any type of problem. You only find out later that it was due to a genetic variant. Right now, there’s no nationwide or worldwide screening for conditions like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy for healthy young people, because the cost is too high. This is exactly the kind of thing you want to know as a parent.
Q: Is that an area where you see technology stepping into the breach to help?
Scott: Technology can do that. When we look back 10, 15, or 30 years from now, whenever this all matures, there will be a day when we, or our kids, or our kids’ kids will say, “Why, of course we test for that.”
Justin: These guys have heard me use this analogy a lot, but 20 years ago, GPS was the most advanced thing around. It was a technology developed by the military and was even the central plot point in a James Bond movie. If you asked most people back then whether they would have GPS in their pockets, they would have thought you were crazy. And even if that were true, if you asked what GPS would allow you to do, they would have said, “I don’t know…get directions?” Today, GPS is everywhere and enables apps as diverse as Lyft, Yelp, Pokémon Go, and Airbnb. I totally agree with what Scott said about parents and healthcare more broadly — everyone will tap into their genome regularly for health purposes. Thinking about the consumer side of things, we’re heading towards a world where you will be able to use your genome as easily as you use location services on your phone.
Q: Meaning that you never think about it as you go about your day-to-day activities?
Justin: Right. It will be taken for granted. Think about what happens with GPS. Developers take it as a given that they can use location services to build incredibly innovative products. And consumers have all the control. You can choose to allow or not allow any app to use your location. You could theoretically use Yelp without it and type in the address every time, but boy, who would do that?
Q: Probably people with privacy concerns. What is the consumer getting in return?
Justin: There is a privacy trade-off that you make. You’re allowing that app or device maker to know where you are because it’s so useful. It changes your life in ways big and small that you don’t think about. It is a reasonable analogy for where I see the genome going. Imagine in five years, where you’ll be integrating your genome into all these products and services you use every day.
Q: Speaking of privacy concerns, what are the questions you think will get raised as this becomes more mainstream?
Scott: What’s critical is to develop trust with the consumer. We’ve been very clear at Helix that part of our mission is to help you learn about your DNA. We provide you choice, we’re transparent about what we will and won’t do, and we keep it secure. It’s your DNA, and if you contact us and request to have your data removed, we will delete it.
Q: The idea behind your business is to be transparent. Why is that important?
Scott: It underlies part of our business model. From the beginning, our idea was to be a consumer business, where we charge for the DNA sequencing and enable you to purchase applications from trusted partners to interpret your genome. The consumer pays for this service, and it’s a straightforward exchange.
James: For the people who use Helix, there shouldn’t be any surprises. You should understand what you’re getting and what your DNA is being used for. We are transparent about this so that people will trust the service.
Q: Do you think that challenge is something the consumer genetic field will need to face in order to win broader acceptance?
James: It’s not just consumer genetic companies. The data issue will impact the broader healthcare system as these data sets become portable. That implicit trust is something that must be kept in mind. Reputation and credibility are earned in drops and lost in buckets.
Justin: It’s important to note that Helix is very different than historical models in other industries. We’ll have an individual’s 20,000 genes stored in their account, but no one looks at that data unless the user gives us permission. We don’t sell data and we don’t analyze users unless they want to unlock something. That means each person can make their choice about what they want to know — and what they don’t want to know.
Q: Can you give me an example of how that might work in practice?
Justin: We just launched a test to tell you about your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. My dad uses the service and wanted to know his risk, and so he decided to purchase that product. He got the results, and he was excited, and he called me and wanted to talk about it. But my mom, who is also a Helix user, decided she did not want to know. That is her right. No one at Helix knows about her Alzheimer’s genes either. The data is in our system but it is never interpreted unless requested by the consumer. She is the one in control.
Q: You’re a Silicon Valley company and it’s probably easier to explain the value prop in this region of Northern California because so many people work in tech. But how do you convey that message to a wider population around the country?
James: Most people don’t have genetics questions per se. They have questions they hope genetics can help them answer. People aren’t asking about autosomal recessive carrier traits. They’re asking if they will have a healthy child or if they have a serious disease, so they can plan for their family’s future. Or they are asking if there’s a more personalized way for them to lose weight, or if there are particular injuries that they are more at risk for than the average person. These are the types of questions that we can help answer.
Obviously, there are people in the market today that are curiosity-driven and want to know everything in genetics about themselves. But they are a minority, and our partners will be able to build products to answer the specific use cases that people have.
We see this today in the ancestry category, which is already a billion-dollar market in the US. Last year, 10 million people used DNA to help answer the question, “Where did I come from?” Most of those consumers were not DNA enthusiasts, but DNA was a powerful tool to help answer their question.
Q: So how do you guys blow off steam? What do you do so your heads don’t explode?
Scott: Justin agonizes over Lakers basketball trades.
Justin: I do! More seriously, I have a one-year-old daughter at home, and it’s a tremendous amount of fun to watch her grow up. You can almost see the neurons forming as she learns.
Scott: I try and spend a lot of time with my family: sports, vacations, plenty of board games.
James: While Helix is like my baby, I also have a young daughter at home and enjoy spending lots of time with her and my wife.