Updated on July 28, 2016
“In Silicon Valley, everyone talks about Google (GOOGL), Facebook (FB), Snapchat, Twitter (TWTR) — and they are missing it.”
That’s a bold statement, particularly coming from long-time Silicon Valley executive like Katie Jacobs Stanton, who is an alum of Yahoo (YHOO), Google and, most recently, Twitter. But she’s emphatic enough to repeat it: “They are missing this very important trend that is actually going to save people’s lives,” she says. “So we want to get ahead of that.”
“We” would be Color Genomics, a startup that provides mail-in spit kits that can determine whether consumers carry gene mutations associated with genetic cancer. Stanton, who served as Twitter’s until this February, will become the company’s CMO in August. While she’s been involved with the startup as an investor since 2013 — she’d worked with co-founders Elad Gil and Othman Laraki at both Google and Twitter — becoming a full-time employee was an unexpected jump. Before accepting the offer Stanton considered taking another media job at a tech company. But, again, that’s not where she sees the real opportunity.
Over the last 10 years technology has made our lives more connected, personalized and convenient. “We’ve been able to process all this information to get flights and hotels and find our friends,” says Stanton. But the same applications have failed to reshape health care, an industry that, in fundamental ways, looks the same as it did a decade ago. Stanton believes that’s changing, in part because Silicon Valley is finally “getting serious” about improving how we collect, process and analyze health information.
In place of another social networking or delivery app, “a lot of alums of big companies like Google and Facebook and Microsoft are taking their experiences and trying to solve life’s problems,” she says. (Grail, a startup working to develop a blood test that can detect cancer, and Honor, which connects care takers with patients, are two such companies, both headed by ex-Googlers.)
When Stanton joins Color Genomics next month, she will become one of them. The startup’s goal is to make genetic testing for common cancer mutations more accessible — and affordable. While traditional genetic testing typically costs between $1,500 to $4,000, its mail-in kit — which can detect 30 genes including BRCA1 and BRCA2, the genes connected to breast and ovarian cancer, respectively — costs $249.
Unlike 23andMe, a genetic startup that famously got in trouble with the FDA, Color Genomics is not direct-to-consumer. Instead, users order the test through their primary care doctor or from an independent physician via the company’s app.
At this stage in her career, Stanton says she wants to make a real difference. “When I left Twitter, I had no idea. I thought I would continue in media or some kind of tech company, but then I took a step back.”
Once she did that, she noticed exciting trends — all rooted in tech’s ability to shape health care. One of Stanton’s first initiatives is figure out how to best provide genetic testing to populations that haven’t traditionally had access. Out of the couple million people who have received genetic tests, the vast majority are white, she says. “If that trend continues, science around this will only really understand the DNA of Caucasians. We need to change that.”
Watch Stanton discuss her reasons for joining Color Genomics in the video above.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly named HomeHero as the caregiving service started by a former Google employee. That company is Honor.