Anne Wojcicki: You don't have to be a genius to make valuable contributions to science

The ex-Wall Streeter making millions off people's spit
The ex-Wall Streeter making millions off people's spit

You don't have to be a technical genius to make valuable contributions to science.

This is a concept personal genomics entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki has touted in interviews. What is important for a successful scientific venture is finding a way to get ordinary people excited about and interested in science, which is something Wojcicki strives to do with 23andMe, a company she co-founded with Linda Avey and Paul Cusenza to provide genetic testing to consumers.

The company is one of the first, and only, companies to offer genetic profiles directly to consumers, rather than through doctors or researchers. Getting ordinary people interested in genetics — especially interested enough to shell out $199 to give their genetic information to a company — is crucial to the 23andMe's success.

Anne Wojcicki speaking at a SXSW event.
Mindy Best | Getty Images

But Wojcicki also hopes 23andMe will inspire more public interest in genetics and in science in general. She has encouraged people who might not consider themselves technical geniuses to still participate in science.

"It's one of the things I want people to understand about science.... You don't have to be the best person in the world at it," she said in an interview with documentary website Makers. "But you can be good, and there are so many different opportunities in science."

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23andMe turned 10 years old last month, and in that decade more than 1 million people have mailed test tubes full of their spit to the company's labs for analysis. Among them are Wojcicki's own family members.

Several years ago, Wojcicki and her then-husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, found through testing that he carried a genetic risk of Parkinson's disease. They began researching the issue, and they found some research suggesting that caffeine could help stave off the disease, so they began drinking coffee together. They also exercised together.

"There's clearly things you can do in your environment to try to prevent disease," Wojcicki told Makers, "and I want to know what those things are."

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Success has not been a steady path upward, of course. The Food and Drug Administration told 23andMe to stop offering information on potentially heritable diseases in 2013, before partially reversing that decision last year.

The company now has regulatory approval to provide information on whether a person carries a gene that might create risks of their children developing a disease. That is a significant change from the information it used to offer on 254 health risks.

Further, the idea of a private company collecting genetic information on millions of people and treating it as a company asset has also drawn substantial criticism.

The company's strategy in part will involve using information from their customers to develop drugs — 23andMe has a Therapeutics group run by a former Genentech executive, built for "translating genetic information into the discovery and development of new therapies," according to a company press release.

Other companies have tried to turn genetic information into drugs, with mixed results. Wojcicki told the New York Times she hopes 23andMe can learn from the mistakes others have made.