As sales of consumer genetic tests slow amid rising privacy concerns, Color Genomics has chosen a different path, by focusing on counseling services and selling to crowds overlooked by industry leaders 23andme and Ancestry.  

Color, based in Burlingame, California, offers counseling to help users make sense of their test results. Such education is a critical “safeguard” when dealing with the sensitive health information embedded in genetic data, CEO Othman Laraki, told CNBC Aug. 25. 

“We are seeing the next wave of maturity of the genetics market,” said Larkaki, who co-founded Color in 2013 with fellow former Twitter executive Elad Gil.

Color’s high-profile investors include U2’s Bono, General Catalyst, CRV’s George Zachary, and Emerson Collective’s Laurene Powell Jobs. The company has raised nearly $150 million over the last three years, according to Pitchbook, but declined to share sales and profit details with Karma. 

Counselling may be a growing niche that will help Color stand out from other genetic testing companies.

“There are lots of direct consumer genetic testing opportunities today, but I don’t think genetic counseling is quite at the same level,” Jinchuan Xing, Associate Professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Genetics, told Karma. “It’s important for people to understand what the reports mean, and how to interpret the results.” 

Correcting a Bias in Genetic Research

Color has been hired by the U.S. government to provide genetic counseling to Americans taking part in a major health data research project called “All of Us,” which was started by the National Institutes of Health last year. As a key part of the U.S. government’s broader Precision Medicine Initiative, All of Us aims to collect genetic data from more than 1 million subjects in order to improve health, fuel the development of new treatments, kickstart a new era of more-precise preventive care and medical treatments.

Since the program’s start in May 2018, about 175,000 people have enrolled in All of Us at more than 340 recruitment sites across the United States.

“One of the most special and most ambitious things about this project” is that more than 80% of participants are from groups that have historically been underrepresented in biomedical research, Alicia Zhou, Color’s vice president of research and scientific affairs, told Karma. “It’s striving to correct a bias that already exists,”  she said.

Most genetic research has been conducted in Europe and in the U.K., resulting in databases that aren’t a true reflection of humanity. “You can’t base research off of only one population, you have to begin with a diverse group,” Zhou said.

Participants will be able to access health information gained by researchers, enabling them to pursue treatment or preventive care. All of Us also will work to connect participants who lack health insurance with the medical care they need.

Color will receive $4.6 million in the first year of the five-year government contract, which is valued at as much as $25 million. That sum will enable it to expand its remote counseling service.

Bringing Technology-Driven Healthcare to All

In addition to the All of Us program, Color partners with top scientists, organizations, and advocacy groups around the world to promote population health research. Zhou told Karma that “in the U.S., we have greater access to technology-driven healthcare, but in other countries, the cost barrier is insurmountable.”

For example, Zhou says, a Yale medical student from Trinidad and Tobago used a grant from Color to bring genetic testing to her home country in order to find out whether genetics are responsible for the earlier average-age of breast cancer there. She discovered that women in Trinidad and Tobago do, indeed, have an increased incidence of genetic mutations that raises their risk of developing breast cancer.

Color also has a number of programs that makes its genetic testing free through clinics to anyone who can’t afford it and at a discount rate to family members related to someone who has a genetic mutation.

Larger Implications for the Healthcare Industry

While it strives to transform the consumer genetics market, Color has a greater ambition to have an overall impact on people’s health through better patient access to technology. 

“We believe that information coded within the human genome is useful for an individual’s health, from knowing that you metabolize a drug differently, to knowing that you are in a high risk for a certain disease,” Zhou said. “In the next 5-10 years it will become routine for someone’s genomic data to be an integral part of their healthcare.”

Color’s goal in all of its programs is to gather that information, and then provide it to users, researchers, and healthcare providers in a useful format. Still, no matter their ambitions, Color, like all companies, will have to focus on executing, Xing said.

“Color’s success is dependent upon how much they charge and how they implement their system,” he said. 

Karma’s Keshav Pandya contributed to this story.