When I started looking at health brands to nominate for the 2017 Interbrand Breakthrough Brands report, I discovered Helix, a brand that offers a marketplace of DNA-powered products. Helix uses next-generation sequencing called Exome+ to read a person’s DNA–and unlocks 100x more data than competitors. Where most companies do single tests, Helix stores and protects DNA information so consumers can access and share it with any partner—all without ever having to provide another saliva sample again. A customer’s single sample is available for a lifetime of DNA insights.
I was able to do a quick Breakthrough Brands interview with CEO Robin Thurston, but knew that I wanted to learn more. I spoke to Robin again to learn more about Helix’s aspirations—and what that could mean for the future of nutrition, fitness, health and more.
Nicole Diamant: First, congratulations on being named an Interbrand Breakthrough Brand for 2017! This is an exciting time for healthcare, and specifically, the personalization of health. What drove you to join Helix and drew you to its specific mission?
Robin Thurston: I truly believe that the greatest health and wellness discoveries of our lifetime will come from the work we do in the next ten years with our partners, and we are not far off from every person on the planet having access to their own genomic information in order to enhance their daily lives.
We have the potential and responsibility to not just help these individuals, but to also further research and accelerate developments in life science, which is truly exciting to me and our team. The incredible team at Helix is making this all possible. From my very first meeting with Helix’s co-founders, Justin Kao, James Lu, and Scott Burke, I had the instant feeling that they embody everything I value in a team and company. They’re humble visionaries with immense passion, impressive expertise, and a persistence that’s difficult to find.
Diamant: Genomics is a fairly new frontier, and definitely new for consumers. What’s the brand experience you’re trying to create for them with Helix?
Thurston: It’s important to us that we’re helping people make better decisions to enhance their life every day. It can be as simple as choosing a better wine based on your genomic taste profile, or as impactful as deciding to get carrier screening when you decide to have children. We want to give people access to their most personalized information—DNA—every day and in a wide variety of products and services
Diamant: Partnerships are key to your continued engagement with consumers. How do you determine the right partners to work with and which ones will best align with your brand and goals?
Thurston: We want to empower individuals to improve their lives through DNA. We believe that access to your own personal DNA information can be enriching, and we want to make sure that the products are high quality, safe, and responsible. Helix takes a risk-based approach to assessing the scientific validity of partner products. That means that products that provide information that could be life-changing are evaluated more deeply, while those that personalize your day-to-day routine undergo a more straightforward review. Nonetheless, for all products Helix looks for the qualities that define well-designed human genetic studies: sample size, statistical significance, replication, and controlled bias.
Diamant: How much do you think about the rabbit hole of genetics and the impact of that information on consumers?
Thurston: I like to think of it more like space exploration than going down a rabbit hole. There’s lots to discover, and our knowledge is ever expanding. The best interest of the consumer is always top of mind. Context is really important to us, and a genetic report on its own is not enough to help you make informed decisions.
DNA is really exciting, impactful, personalized information, but it’s not the only information that affects your life, and we absolutely want people to know that DNA is not destiny. Your environment, your lifestyle, your diet and a multitude of other factors contribute to how your genes are ultimately expressed. This is where our partners come in. Partners like the Mayo Clinic and Mt. Sinai have extensive networks and programs to help people understand their genomic results.
Diamant: So if I get sequenced tomorrow, what will you be able to tell me about myself now—and what do you hope to be able to tell me a year from now? Five years from now?
Thurston: Well, that’s a big question. Today we can tell you a lot. There’s been a considerable amount of research on hereditary diseases such as familial hypercholesterolemia, hereditary cancers or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. We’re also able to tell you about your ancestral make up and the migratory history of your ancestors.
We’re breaking ground in new areas to do things like recommend what wine you might like based on your genes for taste and smell. As we begin to merge DNA information with the existing wealth of data that individuals are already tracking related to fitness and nutrition I expect us to learn a lot more in those categories as well.
As for five years, that’s light years away in this industry. I personally would like to have my health, fitness and nutrition perfectly tailored to me based on my DNA. As a cyclist, for example, I could know how I’m genetically capable of reaching my peak performance, or what breakfast to eat, what sunscreen to use. Everything.
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