Ancestry.com is quietly transforming itself into a medical research juggernaut
J Thoendell stashed this in Tech
Sittner sold the company long ago, but three decades after it began, Ancestry.com—the $1.6 billion Internet company that his magazine evolved into—is poised to become one of the most unlikely, yet powerful, scientific tools in the world. For about three years, it’s been collecting and analyzing genetic information through a service called AncestryDNA, and in the process, quietly asking consumers if they’d be willing to share their data with Ancestry for research. To date, it’s banked more than 800,000 samples from customers all over the world, rivaling the database of Google-backed genetics-analysis company 23andMe, which boasts about 900,000 samples. And now, armed with mountains of health data, Ancestry.com is slowly transforming itself from a retiree’s hobby into a medical research juggernaut.
“We actually do think that health is a pretty natural extension of the core mission to help everyone discover, preserve and share their family history,” Ancestry.com CEO Tim Sullivan told me earlier this week, during a visit to the company’s San Francisco offices. “We’re exploring ways that we could participate in health and provide our users with health insights, for sure….ways that we could leverage the data we’ve aggregated to support research efforts, similar to what 23andMe has done with Genentech and others.”
Long before Ancestry.com got into the DNA game, it had ties to the Mormon church. Its owners were two Brigham Young University grads who had made their fortune selling Latter-day Saints publications on floppy disks. Access to Ancestry.com was free at LDS Family History Centers, and recently the company signed a deal with the church’s genealogy non-profit, FamilySearch.org.
Ancestry.com’s huge advantage over services like 23andMe is its age; since it has been collecting ancestral data about its users for decades, it knows health information not just about its users, but about their great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. That information, coupled with surveys and modern-day genetic testing, can inform users of any hereditary conditions that run in their family, and help them project health problems in their future. Recently, the company has been testing a “family health history experience,” which will eventually help people use their family trees to aggregate family health history from their living family members.
Fascinating and makes sense now that you mention it.
But I'm pretty sure this was not the plan when it first started.