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Helix Raises $200M to Build Its DNA “App Store” Beyond the Family Tree

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Thanks to advertising blitzes from companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, Joe and Jane Consumer might know that their genetic blueprint and $100 or so can dig up insights about their genealogy.

San Carlos, CA-based startup Helix is banking on that budding curiosity to provide a market for all kinds of consumer apps fueled by a person’s DNA. The firm said today it has raised $200 million from high-profile investors to expand its online app store, which currently has 34 products across six categories: entertainment, family, fitness, health, nutrition, and ancestry, which is the most popular.

“The majority of our customers are coming to us through genealogy,” said CEO Robin Thurston, who cofounded the fitness app maker MapMyFitness in 2007 then climbed the ranks at athletic apparel giant UnderArmour after it bought MapMyFitness in 2013.

In 2015, Helix spun out of Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), a world leader in DNA sequencing machines, and reeled in more than $100 million in funding from the San Diego company and others. With the new funding announced today, Illumina’s share of Helix drops from 50 percent to just over 40 percent of the company, according to a spokesman.

It’s a big bet that Helix can build upon the market that companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have created by giving third-party software developers access to a Helix customer’s DNA—at least parts of it. The first time a customer orders a product, say, EverlyWell’s $89 Breast Milk DHA+ app that analyzes the omega-3 fatty acid content in breast milk, Helix sends a “spit kit” to collect a saliva sample and charges a one-time sequencing $80 fee. Helix, powered by Illumina’s hardware, decodes the customer’s exome—the sections of DNA that instruct how to make proteins— and more.

Helix is the keeper of the full data and releases to app makers only what they need for their services or products. The customer then receives her test results—or a physical product, like a $150 scarf patterned on his or her DNA (pictured above). The next time the customer orders a product, there’s no need for another spit kit.

“The concept of a marketplace differentiates us from others,” said Thurston. “Consumers want choice.” He said there have been “good early signs that people understand how the Helix model works,” but he declined to discuss revenues or say how many products have been ordered through the site.

Explorations of family trees have proven popular, but it remains to be seen whether people will shell out cash for genetic tests of questionable value. The breast-milk app, for example, comes with these caveats:

“Genetics can help, but your diet has the biggest impact on DHA levels.”

“Genetic results are based on population-wide studies. What is true at a population level average may not be true at an individual level.”

Helix is mainly shying away from medical apps. In a few cases, like the breast-milk test or a $149 test for a genetic modification linked to diabetes, a customer has to consult with a doctor first. In each of these instances, the app maker provides a doctor to review the customer’s health history before allowing the test.

Those important caveats, as well as others for the various apps on the site, are found by scrolling down each page nearly to the end of the product description. Thurston said a key measure of the Helix service was transparency. When asked if caveats, such as the genetic information might not be very relevant to a person’s condition, should be displayed more prominently, Thurston said, “We’re always evaluating ways to make the information more transparent to our customers, and through research and customer feedback will continue to iterate the presentation of information.”

A marketplace where third-party app makers have access to slices of customers’ DNA and other information also raises security and privacy concerns. Thurston said Helix works with third-party app developers on their security practices, and that its own “core security” is a “major investment.”

“If any one of the companies in the industry got hacked it could be damaging to the overall industry,” said Thurston. “It behooves all of us to do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Consumers have grown inured to third parties buying and selling their personal and financial information. What about genetic information? Helix cautions potential app buyers to “review [each] partners’ privacy policy with care.”

Helix provides “guidelines” to the developers but doesn’t dictate their privacy policies, said Thurston, who harkened back to his days selling fitness apps in the Apple store. Apple couldn’t possibly vet every word in each developer’s privacy policy, he said.

There is a growing movement to allow people better control of their genetic information—and to make money from it, if they wish. San Diego startup Luna DNA, founded by Illumina alumni, wants to use blockchain technology to create a cryptocurrency—Luna coins—that would encourage people to share their data for research. Harvard University geneticist George Church has founded a similar company on the East Coast.

Helix is aware of the movement, Thurston said, and might try giving people free apps in exchange for contributing their health data to research. Its first foray is with a health research project in Nevada. When it gets under way, volunteers who sign up will get a free Helix spit kit and an app of their choice. “I think consumers are very savvy about what the value of their data is and will be worth in the future,” said Thurston.

DFJ Growth led the $200 million Series B funding. All existing investors participated, including Illumina, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Mayo Clinic, Sutter Hill Ventures, and Warburg Pincus.