PreCommerce Thought Leader Series: Sean George of Invitae on Transparency, Innovation and the Future of Genetic Testing
As I mentioned in our set up post for our PreCommerce thought leader series, we are interviewing several of our speakers during our events the week of March 9. Next up is Sean George, Co-Founder, President and COO, Invitae. For more information about our events during SXSW, go here.
Sean was co-founder and CEO of Locus Development, an early-stage genetic analysis startup. Prior to co-founding Locus, he served as the chief operating officer at Navigenics, an early leader in personalized medicine. He has also served as SVP of marketing at Affymetrix, SVP of life science business at Affymetrix, and VP of labeling and detection business at Invitrogen. He has worked at McKinsey & Company and Molecular Probes as well. Dr. George holds a Bachelor of Science from UCLA with a major in molecular genetics, a Master of Science in molecular biology from University of California, Santa Barbara and a doctorate in molecular genetics from University of California, Santa Cruz.
And now onto the interview:
[Aaron Strout] What is innovation? How do companies, such as Invitae, adopt and scale?
[Sean George] Contrary to popular myth, innovation takes more than one or just a couple of people. Typically it’s sourced from a number of individuals with diverse skill sets, from different industries, backgrounds, and even different parts of the world. And while opportunities to innovate lie in plain daylight, it’s harder than one might think to repeatedly marshal resources in an organization to identify, and execute on ways to solve relevant problems that others haven’t realized yet. At Invitae, we are focused on building the most talented, cross-functional team possible and creating an environment where that team is enabled to innovate and collaborate to affect change.
In our case, our team looks quite a bit different that the other players in our space. Many companies do what they do from a pure technology or clinical angle. In order to achieve our goal of making genetic information more affordable and accessible to billions of people, we have assembled a team of more than 130 of the world’s foremost experts in genetics, bioinformatics, engineering, technology and commercial development, among other disciplines. And it’s that team that differentiates Invitae and enables us to build our business.
And you have to be willing to let that team fail to be truly innovative. Freedom of thought creates an environment wherein people can come up with crazy ideas. Sometimes the crazy ideas work and work well, and sometimes they crash and burn. And that’s when you regroup, reevaluate what went wrong and what went right, and start the process again. We’ve found that transparency comes along with freedom as critical ingredients to innovation. We’ll also admit that as our organization grows, maintaining that freedom and transparency gets challenged at every turn, but if we want to keep the innovation, we know we have to fight against that momentum.
[AS] What have you done so far to keep Invitae fresh in the business and how will you continue to keep the company relevant?
[SG] Invitae is reinventing genetic testing by aggregating the world’s genetic tests into a single service with better quality, faster turnaround time and a lower price than most single-gene diagnostic tests today. We’re attempting to lower the barriers for clinicians and patients to obtain diagnostic and preventative genetic information to improve healthcare for billions of people.
It’s still early enough that the relentless pursuit of this idea creates a unique and differentiating business model. The incumbents in the space, pursuing niche markets at high prices with high margins, are trapped in what has now become the familiar innovator’s dilemma; they will now have to react. On top of the challenges that disruptors face in other industries, incumbents in our industry can utilize the regulatory, legal and peculiar inefficiencies of the third-party payor system to keep competition at bay. For that reason, we need to continually remind ourselves that the current norms won’t work and our company may need to forego short-term gains to stay on the disruptive path that ultimately preserves our right to participate in the future. I can assure you, keeping this ‘freshness’ with all the pressures on a growing business can be challenging. We are constantly needing to remind ourselves of it.
[AS] How does the advancement of technology play in genomics? How is Invitae incorporating technology into its differentiated offering? How do you differentiate from competitors in the space?
[SG] The advances in computing, storage, sequencing, networking and information sharing tools and interfaces are moving ahead in their own right. Our goal is to integrate all these advances to solve the particular problem of truly scalable sample-to-clinical-reporting. We cobble together what we can, and invent what we need to innovate at every turn in the process. We view it as a hot-swappable technology stack, integrated to solve a particular problem faster, cheaper and better than previously imaginable.
Regarding competitors, we’re mostly facing the lack of genetic testing as opposed to any other companies offering it. Up to 10% of the population is affected by an inherited disorder, yet a small fraction of 1% of them have access to the information that would help them. If more companies join in similar approaches, then this will be one exciting industry very quickly, to the great benefit of patients globally.
[AS] What are your thoughts on the future of genetic testing and where it will stand in the next few years?
We’re quickly moving from an era of scarcity of genetic information, to one of abundance. At the right price, sometime in the near future, anybody with difficult to diagnose symptoms, that may indicate an inherited disease will get the kind of genetic tests we offer. And not too far after that, pretty much everyone in developed health care systems will get a ‘genetic workup’ as a standard part of their primary care. We will look back one day and marvel at a time when we tried to do it any other way.
[AS] What is a trend that you expect (or hope) to see talked about this year in the genetic testing space?
[SG] What’s top of mind for Invitae is increasing the transparency and the sharing of genetic information to benefit all. We are doing our part to help push industry and academia forward on this. We strongly support the Free the Data movement. We also submit clinical variants to ClinVar, a public variant database maintained by the NIH, and collate and present that information plus information from other labs on our own Clinvitae site. There are currently no standards for sharing this information, and currently most labs keep their data secluded and use it as a way to compete. Public efforts to do so are hobbled by lack of funding or academic politics. And another challenge comes from privacy concerns. All of these factors slow down the transparency and sharing that would otherwise accelerate the space. In my experience, every single family I’ve met that was affected by a genetic disorder is more than happy to make public any and all genetic and health information if they think it might possibly help.
The questions we here at Invitae are focused on are: who are the other players in the ecosystem that will take this space forward? Who will create the sharing tools/platforms for aggregating and managing genetic and health information? How do we get the right data into the right hands for the right purpose?” We feel like we’re sitting in the dark before the dawn that still exists in the healthcare system. But daylight swiftly approaches…