Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Interview with Lee Essner, AccessDNA
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Last month, AccessDNA (www.accessdna.com) announced it had raised an angel round of funding for the firm's shopping engine for genetic tests. We sat down with Lee Essner, the firm's CEO and founder, to chat about the company. Essner was most recently EVP at WeddingChannel.com, and he tells us why he thinks now is the right time for the firm's services.
What is AccessDNA all about?
Lee Essner: At AccessDNA, we like to think of ourselves as the WebMD of genetics. We've got a built-in shopping engine for genetic testing, which helps consumers get information on genetics, helps them evaluate where they might have some risk, based on their family history and family profile, and then identifies all the emerging online testing providers that might sell testing relevant for them, based on that family profile. For example, if you have a family history of diabetes or Alzheimer's, there may be certain genetic test you can get from an online provider, or even an offline provider through a genetic counselor. That might include full genome scanners like 23andme, or Pathway Genomics that might have a component of their test that shows diabetes risk. So we'll show you, if you indicate in your profile that you have a history of diabetes in your family, that these providers might have tests for you. And, we rank those providers, looking at what the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) finds important, such as whether they provide pre- and post-test counseling, whether they have a physician involved, if they have adequate security and encryption policies, and adequate privacy policies, if they use certified labs, and a handful of factors that the NSGC finds important. We also give users and consumers who have used those services the opportunity to rank those providers and tell about their experience. Effectively, we're an online aggregator of all the emerging genetic test sellers. The product is broad, because it covers everything from ancestry testing to whole genome scans, to genetic predisposition testing, which tests if you might have a risk of diabetes or heart disease.
How did the company come about?
Lee Essner: I was involved in the early days with a company called WeddingChannel. I was a senior guy there, and I ran registry/gift services, national sales and advertising, and travel services. That company sold in September of 2006, and I had gotten married in August of 2006. My wife and I decided to buy a couple of around the world tickets after the sale, and actually, when we were traveling we got pregnant. So we came back, went to the obgyn, and the obgyn had us sit down with a genetic counselor. She walked us through the family profiling process, and through that we were able to determine what testing was relevant for us. We got testing, it all worked out okay for us--but from that experience, I got the feeling that this was really important and useful information, and that I probably only had access to it because I had access to a good obgyn and we're in a big city, and there are all these advances in science, and consumer adoption is only now beginning to take hold. I thought there would be an opportunity to bring information about this genetic testing and what was happening via the Internet. The aggregation approach--aggregating all the providers--is very relevant to what we did at WeddingChannel. There, we aggregated all of the registries. It's a very similar model.
So, I went back to the genetic counselor, shared a little of my background, and my vision--and it turned out she shared exactly the same vision, and had written her thesis on direct-to-consumer delivery of genetic services. Her thesis was based on telecom, I suggested the Internet, and she loved it. She left her job at Genzyme, and we started the company in January of 2008. We did a seed round in January of 2008, and did our angel round which we closed last week. I now have an 18-month year old daughter, and that's the reason I'm so passionate about the business, and what it can potentially offer to lots of people.
Are there really that many providers of genetic testing that you can aggregate them?
Lee Essner: The providers are emerging quite regularly now. Just in the last 12 to 18 months I think there have been forty providers that have emerged. In our database we have about 70 or so providers. Some of them we are signing affiliate partnerships with, which is part of our revenue model, a pretty traditional lead-gen relationship where we get paid part of the transaction. And we started about two months ago signing partnerships with some of the providers, and signed our thirteenth last week. We'll continue to do that business development as we go forward. But right now, we list everybody and rank everybody, but clearly our partners will have different positioning on the site.
Talk about how your lead generation works?
Lee Essner: It is definitively lead gen, and I said traditional lead gen, but it's really more an affiliate relationship to me. In our case, we provide a link to our affiliates, as opposed to taking a user's name and email and selling that to people. That's important, because we're not doing any of the testing here, and not collecting any data from the consumer. You can fill out your profile anonymously, and get that information, and once you actually do the testing and are comfortable with the provider, that's when you're providing your detailed personal information, and in fact a DNA sample. They're responsible for fulfillment and what happens thereafter.
Talk about your round?
Lee Essner: We raised $667,330, a slightly odd number. We've been working on that for maybe five months.
And that came from local angels?
Lee Essner: Yes, it came from local angels. The seed round was also a bunch of local guys as well, about six people. But, it was just a single angel investor in this latest round.
How far along is the business, and is this available yet?
Lee Essner: We raised the seed in January of last year. We used that money to get a prototype built. We spent four months designing the product--traditional wireframes and specs, and built and launched it in September last year. We didn't do any PR and marketing around the launch, we simply wanted to get it live and start talking to users to see how we could optimize it. We wanted to see what people were comfortable with, what they did and didn't understand about genetic testing. We then spent the next four months talking to our consumers, which resulted in a handful of improvements, which we then wire frame spec'd and developed, and launched in May of this year. That is our final beta of the product, and in theory we're coming out of beta, but I wanted to time coming out of beta with our financing, which we closed last week.
Why would someone want to use the service, rather than just picking one of these guys who does a whole genome scan?
Lee Essner: The advantage is we provide a comparative resource. If you wanted to do a 23andme whole genome scan, their test covers certain conditions. Pathway covers certain other conditions, and Navigenics covers the ones they cover. We help you give a sense which conditions might be covered by the different providers. 23andme may be the exact wrong test for you, based on your family history. We actually help convert you, by showing what is relevant to you, based on you and your family's history. It may be Navigenics or Pathway may offer a much more relevant test for you. You use us to figure out who the best provider is, and if you want to compare someone's experience with Navigenics or 23and me--you can. We are, to test sellers, what Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz are to the airlines. The airlines are only focused on content and information relevant to the cities they fly into, but if you're a user and want to find out who flies to the areas relevant to you and get information on those cities, you'll want to go to an aggregator because they'll have broad information on all the routes.
It sounds like you also have some user generated components to your business?
Lee Essner: Yes. A user who has done testing can share their experience with a particular provider, they can rank them and add commentary. There's also community, they can talk about their experience with the community as well. Community will be an important part of the site. It's a new area, and in many cases it can be an sensitive topic for people to deal with, and having others to share with and get support from is important. We start with a content page, and give the user information and makes the family profile relevant to them. We give them content pages that describe the various genetic components. You may not realize that there is genetic testing for something relevant to your family history. We have content about probably a thousand conditions, all written by Jordanna, our genetic counselor, co-founder, and Director of Genetics, and vetted by our four scientific advisory board members, which includes two Ph.D's and two M.D.s. We want to be a trustworthy, authoritative resource for consumers who realize that genetics is definitely telling pretty important things to folks. We wanted to help you get the information to identify your risks, and offer you a selection of providers relevant to those risks--all free to the consumer. You'd normally have to pay $150, $250 to get this information for an hour session with a genetic counselor. We offer that for free and anonymously to consumers. It's a tool to allow them to engage, and we use that as a conversion tool to drive them to test sellers. There's really two customers here: the consumer, and we serve the test seller.