big-data

Last week at the 23andMe headquarters, over 100 researchers gathered together for the company’s annual Genome Research Day.

This event is kind of a cross between a science fair, and a recruiting booth, offering a day of talks, poster presentations, and most importantly, information sessions about how to work with 23andMe’s consumer data riches, reports Wired

It’s no secret that 23andMe has grown massively in size over the last two years, but it might not be so obvious that this new sheer volume is too much for it to tackle on its own. This is why the company has embarked on a journey to amp up its research collaborations with outside academics and nonprofit institutions with meetings like this. CEO Anne Wojicki told the lunchroom full of researchers, “I’ve always wanted to help scientists do what they genuinely love – analysing data, not just collecting it. That’s how we really accelerate research forward.”

However, they might be struggling to manage data, but that by no means that they will lower their standards. Securing the chance to work with the company is a very difficult task, with them only accepting applications for research projects twice a year and only accepts 10 percent of proposals. But the word from the inside to get you noticed is to come up with a project that helps 23andMe’s bottom line.

This is what attendees were told in a standing-room-only breakout session about how to collaborate with 23andMe. Liz Noblin, a project manager stated that “we’re looking for the first, the largest, the most novel.” This emphasis on quality and innovativeness pretty much aligns with what scientists looking to publish in top-notch publications would be looking to do anyway. If this is achieved, the focus is more on what researchers can bring to the company themselves. 

How I hear you ask? Well, the company is looking for projects that will grow its business – new statistical methods to extract even more information from each customer’s genetic profile, association studies to power new consumer reports, and more or less anything that will make the 23andMe products more valuable. 

A large part of this is encouraging people of colour to buy the kits, as they are essential to making the company’s research and products more broadly relevant. However, right now they aren’t buying the kits because the results don’t tell them much, and the results won’t tell them much until more people of colour have profiles in the database. In a bid to change this, 23andMe has recently begun subsidising research projects that could fill in those gaps. 

One of its latest moves is its Populations Collaborations Program, through which the company gives researchers free genotyping and DNA analysis services, as well as up to $10,000 to collect samples from those blurry, unsequenced places, such as Mongolia, Micronesia, and pretty much all of Africa and the Middle East. In return, 23andMe gets to add all that DNA to its database. In addition, the company has also launched a formal application process for the grants, the first of which will be awarded this summer. At the same time, the company is also evaluating how the people sampled will ultimately benefit from the research. This is really important in order to prevent the appearance that the program is merely a bioprospecting expedition to enrich 23andMe’s data stores. 

Despite this, it seemed that most researchers in attendance were more interested in how the company’s data could jumpstart their own projects. When Wojicki was asked what she hoped to accomplish with the Genome Research Day, she laughed, “I mean, I don’t want to be too obvious, but is anyone here looking for a job?” Noone raised their hands, but I think the company is hoping that getting a taste of the data available will change their minds.