“We’re betting on DNA becoming an integrated part of many aspects of bettering ourselves” – Robin Thurston, Helix
Last week saw Robin Thurston take the CEO seat at Helix, the Illumina spin out company looking to create a major platform for personal genomics. We pinged Robin a few questions via email to find out what his vision for the future of Helix was, and how he thinks we can tackle some of the critical challenges in the sector.
You have an extensive background working on large-scale consumer platforms, such as MapMyFitness. What drew you towards working with Helix, and how are you hoping to apply that experience to creating the world’s first personal genomics platform?
After ten years of building MapMyFitness and being acquired by Under Armour, I was ready for my next challenge and eager to get back to building a business. I was fortunate to meet the Helix co-founders — Justin Kao, James Lu, and Scott Burke — and we had great chemistry and synergy off the bat. I was also instantly inspired by the simple but powerful mission of the company: to empower every person to improve their life through DNA. My previous experience building large-scale consumer platforms should translate well at Helix.
Similar to fitness data storage, Helix will allow consumers to keep their DNA data in one place, access it in real-time, and explore uniquely-personalized products and experiences provided by high-quality partners (and all powered by DNA.) We’ve announced partnerships with Mayo Clinic, LabCorp, GoodStart Genetics and Duke University, and more will be announced over the coming months. The partner ecosystem is going to be really vibrant and diverse. While I’m personally excited about the opportunities with family health, I’m inspired by the opportunities to deliver personalized products in general health, nutrition, lifestyle, genealogy, fitness, and more.
Many people think of genome sequencing as a niche medical procedure, a test to get if you are sick. Helix appears to be looking to break out of the medical niche, and give genomics a broader appeal outside of healthcare. What would you like to try to get the wider public excited about what’s in their genomes?
What inspired me about the Helix opportunity is the real possibility that every person on the planet could have their genome sequenced in the not-too-distant future. The science and the technology is now available so anyone can get their genome sequenced in an easy, safe, and affordable way. There are some powerful use cases in the medical space of course, such as carrier screening if you’re an expecting parent, but there are also undeniable opportunities and compelling reasons for people to know what’s in their DNA beyond medical applications. I’m excited to help people understand more broadly how unlocking the insights in our DNA can impact all aspects of our lives and potentially all of humanity. It’s of course not going to happen overnight, but we’re betting on DNA becoming an integrated part of many aspects of bettering ourselves.
Obviously you have only just joined the company, so your answer to this next question may change with time! But as a relative newcomer to the sector, what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities and challenges for Helix over the coming months?
There’s an interesting convergence of technology and science happening right now, specifically around how consumers can access information. Historically, it’s been very hard to interpret genetic information. Almost no one can understand the data alone, and that’s part of the reason why we’re working so closely with partners: to make sure the information is accurately and appropriately delivered to the end user in a way that is easy to understand and is actionable. There’s still a lot of education that needs to happen across the board — with consumers and brands — and that’s definitely going to be a big challenge and opportunity for Helix.