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Start-up Helix wants you to care about your DNA -- and it's enlisting help from marketers

  • Helix has a plan to expose millions more people to genetic testing.
  • The idea is to partner with marketers to "personalize" promotions with a new data-set: DNA.
  • The company is run by former Under Armour exec Robin Thurston.
Scientist examining DNA Sequencing
Cultura RM | Rafe Swan | Getty Images
Scientist examining DNA Sequencing

It's now cheaper than ever to map the human genome. But most healthy people don't seem to care all that much about their DNA.

A startup called Helix is trying to change that. The company launches this month with more than a dozen genetic tests in categories ranging from health to entertainment.

Bay Area-based Helix is a spinout of Illumina, a biotech company that develops DNA sequencing machines. Helix's mission is to make genomics relevant to millions more people than have used services like 23andMe, or have taken genetic tests for medical reasons.

It is hoping to reach that broader audience by partnering with a variety of brands that use genetic data in their marketing campaigns.

Examples of apps on Helix's e-commerce store include EverlyWell's "Breast Milk DHA+", which offers new moms the opportunity to find out about the DHA in their breast milk, and Dot One's "personalized scarf," which puts the pattern of a user's genetic code into a scarf. The company also offers health applications, like an inherited diabetes and cholesterol test, and its other categories are fitness, entertainment, nutrition, and ancestry.

The goal for Helix is to reach a new user-base who might not be aware of genetics or are fearful of the consequences of sharing their sensitive health data with companies (there are some gaps in the laws that protect people from discrimination based on their genetics). To convince these people, Thurston said, "utility must surpass fear." In other words, these tests need to be useful or entertaining enough to convince users to give Helix a shot.

Helix is positioning itself as an "app store," because takes on the task of sequencing a users' DNA in its San Diego lab then curates the apps that can take advantage of that information. Helix provides exome sequencing, which is more extensive than "genotyping" services offered by 23andMe, Ancestry.com and the like.

The "personalization" trend

Once users get sequenced by sending in a spit sample, Helix holds on to their DNA data in case users opt-in to additional tests.

Helix charges a one-time fee of $80 to sequence DNA. Each app charges an additional sum, which varies depending on the test.

In the future, the company will share the full DNA data with the user for an undisclosed amount. Helix CEO Robin Thurston said that feature will be available by the end of the year.

Thurston, who previously worked on wearable technology at Under Armour, said the most popular category thus far is nutrition. That's somewhat unexpected, he said, as most genetics applications on the market are either oriented towards health and ancestry.

Thurston expects to bring on some larger, household names brands in the coming year. He thinks Helix is well-situated to appeal to marketing departments, in light of the the trend towards "personalization."

"Companies want to personalize their products more," he explained. "And there's no better way to personalize the product than to bring in a data-set like DNA."

WATCH: Helix an 'app' store for your DNA