I’m always excited when an experienced team from the consumer mobile world crosses over into a complex and formidable area like healthcare or biotech. With Color Genomics, we’re getting just that.
Elad Gil and Othman Laraki, who sold Mixer Labs to Twitter six years ago and went on to oversee search, geo and growth for the company, have joined forces again to do affordable genetic screenings for women.
They’re focusing on the two BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Although mutations on these two genes only happen in 1 to 2 percent of the population, they’re heavily associated with breast cancer. If you have a mutation in BRCA1, you have a lifetime risk of up to 80 percent for developing breast cancer and up to a 50 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer.
“For every one woman that our competitors can test, we can test 10 women for the same price,” Gil said. Competitor Myriad Genetics, which famously lost a case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 over whether it had a patent on the BRCA genes and thereby a monopoly on testing around them, charges roughly $4,000.
The Color Test is a clinical-grade, comprehensive genetic sequencing test that covers 19 major genes associated with breast and ovarian cancer. The tests have to be ordered through a physician — either through the patient’s doctor or one inside of Color’s network.
All test results come paired with a genetic counseling session at no extra charge. Making sense of these genetic screenings can be an emotionally fraught and complex process. If a woman, for instance, is a carrier, she may have to make tough medical choices around prophylactic surgery. Angelina Jolie, a BRCA1 mutation carrier who lost her mother to breast cancer, famously wrote a New York Times op-ed two years ago about her choice to have a preventative double mastectomy.
What qualifies Gil and Laraki to cross over into bioinformatics?
Gil, who you might know from his (very) good blog as an angel investor and serial entrepreneur, actually has a Ph.D. in genetics. He did graduate research on cancer and functional genomics at MIT before going into the consumer web at Google and then at Twitter. Laraki also has a personal interest, given that he’s a BRCA2 mutation carrier.
Taylor Sittler, another co-founder, was recently a pathology resident at UCSF who has been working on algorithms for more accurate cancer screenings. The last co-founder, Nish Bhat, was a security engineer at Lookout. They’ve brought on Mary Claire King, the scientist credited with discovering the BRCA1 gene, as an adviser, too.
Using the mixed genetics and computer science background of their 25-person team, Gil and Laraki have focused on getting the screening costs down.
“The question for us is how can you use a combination of software, lab automation and an understanding of biology to drive down the cost dramatically?” Gil said.
This involves making custom machinery and new types of software analysis to make sense of all of the data that these tests produce. Another Bay Area bioinformatics company that’s valued at more than $1 billion privately called Counsyl has taken a similar tack, by even custom-making their own robotics arms to handle large tray samples. They do BRCA screenings too, although their major focus is on carrier screening, which helps prospective parents learn if they are at risk of passing on any recessive gene disorders to their potential offspring. All of these companies are part of a wave of new startups that marry computer science with biology amid a dramatic decline in the cost of genetic sequencing.
With the launch, Color has attracted a whole host of funding from prominent female investors including Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz, Twitter’s Katie Stanton and alum Chloe Sladden, Laurene Powell Jobs, Blackrock founding partner Sue Wagner, Google board member Ann Mather and Minted CEO Miriam Naficy. Khosla Ventures and Formation 8 are the major venture firms in the $15 million round.
They’re also finding ways to make it free to lower-income communities with an Every Woman Program, that will delivery free testing through UCSF and the University of Washington. Every person who purchases a test can donate money to support another woman who cannot afford it.
“Our broad goal is to democratize access to genetic testing,” Laraki said. “I’ve had two grandparents pass away from this disease, so for me, the focus on cancer was very natural.”