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Posted: 3:09 p.m. Sunday, March 9, 2014

SXSW Keynote: The Future of Genetics in our Everyday Lives with Anne Wojcicki 

Anne Wojcicki
Peter DaSilva / The New York Times
Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andMe, a DNA testing company, at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Nov. 1.

By Omar L. Gallaga

"How many people have spat for us?"

Anne Wojciki, the CEO and co-founder of the genetics testing company 23andMe began her South by Southwest Interactive keynote presentation on Sunday with this question. It referred to the $99 kit the company sells directly to consumers, which requires a swab to be mailed in. The company was the subject of some controversy in November when the company was warned by the FDA to stop providing healthcare information to customers

The keynote, which was streamed online for free, dealt with why and how 23andMe was formed (Wojciki was a healthcare tech investor and is married to one of the founders of Google). Wojcicki said the company's formation was motivated by healthcare costs; that diseases generate more revenue when they are treated instead of prevented and that she feels personal genome data should belong to us.

“Everyone has the right to their genetic information and to use it," she said. Wojcicki believes that genetics testing can lead people to learn more about their responses to medication, disease risks, inherited conditions and interesting traits about their genes. 

She provided testimonials and stories about customers who have made sigificant changes to their healthcare because of information they learned from their 23andMe test. "Personalized medicine is something that's going to help us all have a better healthcare," Wojcicki said.

Wojcicki had to walk a tricky line that all CEOs who do SXSW Interactive keynotes must: how to present her company without sounding like an informercial. Wojcicki started strong by championing big data as a way for people to take control of their healthcare. But by the time she was done telling success stories, some audience members were heading for the exits.

By the time Re/Code tech journalist Kara Swisher came out to ask much tougher questions about the business about 15 minutes before the scheduled end of the session, the bulk of the audience was otu of its chairs leaving Exhibit Hall 5. Swisher asked about the company's connection to Google (which is an investor), how genetic data might be monetized and privacy issues.

Wojcicki said the company has been working with the FDA and she appeared to harbor no grudge, but said that the U.S. may be falling behind in this area. "The rest of the world is moving forward... Genetics is going to be part of our daily life," she said.

Session hashtag: #futgenes

Omar L. Gallaga

About Omar L. Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga writes about technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman. He was a technology correspondent for NPR's "All Things Considered," helping originate the All Tech Considered segment and blog.

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