Color got its start during the consumer DNA testing boom. Now, the CEO of the $1.5 billion startup tells us why he thinks genetics are just one aspect of how the upstart will overhaul healthcare

Othman

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Othman Laraki, the chief executive of Color, is tired of having his company pigeonholed. 

Often grouped into the broader personal-DNA-testing space with 23andMe and Ancestry, the company formerly known as Color Genomics now prides itself on its efforts in population health that provide software to public health entities and health systems — with genetic screening tests as part of a larger package deal. In January, Color raised $167 million in a Series D round that valued the company at $1.5 billion, giving it “unicorn” status.

“From our perspective, we have actually thought about genetics in a way that’s different from almost any other company on the market,” Laraki told Insider. “Our business strategy has never been about direct-to-consumer testing.”

Before the pandemic, Color had already secured high-profile partnerships including with the National Institutes of Health, Chicago’s NorthShore University Health System, and Alphabet’s life sciences arm Verily, giving consumers access to genetic testing through hospitals and employers. Color’s genetic database that it shares with researchers includes 54,000 individual genomes, according to the company’s research arm.

 

kit_contents Color Genomics

When coronavirus hit the US last March, the Burlingame, California-based company made major pivots to fight the pandemic, starting with offering testing in San Francisco. In September, its self-swab COVID-19 test received the FDA’s OK for emergency use. 

Expanding on its existing health technology platform, Color now provides the software infrastructure for all of California’s COVID-19 testing labs, as well as other major cities, school systems, and corporate employers like Foster Farms. To date, it’s processed over 3.5 million COVID-19 tests. 

“We’re doing what is probably actually the biggest rollout in the country of COVID testing access points,” Laraki said, adding that Color has also begun coordinating data for California vaccination sites as part of the statewide vaccination campaign.

With Insider, Laraki went deep on the future of personal genetic testing and how genetics will integrate into a larger push to address population health. Color’s expansion into handling logistics and supply chain considerations via software is indicative of the company’s shift. 

Going forward, Laraki considers Color a health services company that contributes to larger-scale public health initiatives, rather than simply a personal genomics company.

COVID-19 made Laraki realize Color’s most valuable product

In January 2020, Laraki told Insider that the consumer testing market boom had essentially run its course. 

Today, he feels exactly the same. Companies in the space have needed to diversify their offerings, recent 23andMe SPAC deal aside, and Color is no exception. 

For Laraki, the pandemic has made him realize Color’s main product isn’t genetic tests — it’s the health tech infrastructure. Through software coordinating the collection of health data from typically hard-to-reach communities and genetic screening, he said he believes Color has the ability to increase access to preventive care, a major goal of public health.

When the company began working to deliver and process COVID-19 tests, Laraki said the team realized that the software they had built to process genetic tests could also deliver basic health care services to underserved populations. Color’s expansion into health care infrastructure can be seen as part of a broader public health mission, he said, because it expands access to healthcare via technology that will scale faster and become cheaper in the future.

It’s not the first time Color has turned to this approach. Color worked with Alaska Railroad Company and the Philadelphia area’s Teamsters Health and Welfare Fund to offer genetic testing and follow-up preventive care services to these blue collar workforces. Laraki said that led a huge percentage effectively ended up using Color’s tests as effectively a technology-first version of a basic health screen. 

“We were able to reach these people that were outside of the healthcare envelope, if you will,” Laraki said, with Color’s genetic screens providing information and guidance on how to prevent major conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Right now, Color operates COVID-19 testing for California’s K-12 public school system.

“I don’t know of any health service that’s distributed in 20,000 locations,” he said.

To Laraki, the adoption of Color’s infrastructure demonstrates that the company can expand by providing basic healthcare access in underserved communities.

Genetic testing can’t replace one-on-one interaction with a doctor, Laraki said, but it can supply broad populations with data and an additional, typically more convenient access point for the healthcare system.

Genetic screening will have the biggest impact on human health when we forget it’s even there

For Laraki, genetic testing being a buzzy, highly touted healthcare tool or even a source of “infotainment” is beside the point. Although others in the space like 23andMe have doubled down on personalized drug development, Color’s chief executive believes genetic testing’s greatest value lies in the fact it serves as an easily scalable, low-cost preventative health measure.

“From my perspective, genomics will have the biggest impact when we forget it’s even there,” Laraki said. As long as people view genetic tests for high-risk conditions like cancer as a special add-on, that means it’s not weaved into a general conceptualization of what constitutes healthcare, he added.

By selling to health systems, public health bodies, and large employers, Color has found an efficient way to get genetic tests in the hands of people in a manner that will hopefully help keep people healthier.

“What Color in particular has been somewhat successful at doing is aligning patients, providers, and payers,” said CB Insights analyst Kedar Karkare. Companies like Color and its competitor, Helix, have made the bet that genetic screenings will fundamentally save on long-term disease management. 

Thus far, Karkare said he agreed it’s paid off. Like other companies that began sequencing people’s DNA at large scale, Color hasn’t yet shown evidence that its preventive genetic screens are helpful in a primary care setting. Its peer-reviewed publications using its data have contributed to preliminary research on how genetic data correlates with health conditions like cancer and liver failure.

Comparatively, Laraki sees the push into personalized drugs, like 23andMe’s partnerships, as feeding into the US healthcare system’s acute-care overspending problem.

“I don’t think that is the highest value utilization of something like genetics,” he said. “I think the biggest value creation that will come out of genetics is going to be in the actual care of people.”

According to Karkare, the partnership model that Color has used has more clearly married the goals of public health and for-profit companies, relative to other players in the consumer genomics space hoping to pivot to drug development.

Genetic screening can help expand access to primary care

Laraki is firm in his faith that basic genetic screenings will one day become seamlessly integrated into primary care to the point that people will not even care about it or be aware of it. 

Though broader consumer DNA testing has raised alarm bells about companies owning — and profiting off —personal genetic data, he said he believes the larger concern is about health data, more broadly speaking. He pointed to large-scale patient billing information data breaches and STD test results as examples of more alarming data that could fall into the wrong hands. 

“Genetics itself, relative to the rest of your health data portfolio, is actually not necessarily the scariest,” Laraki said. More harm comes from the right data not being used to help people, he said. 

From its start in 2015 at the height of the direct-to consumer DNA testing boom to now, Color has made clear it wants to ensure individual genetic testing is more than just a passing fad. By partnering with both public and private players, Laraki hopes his company will outlive even the very last waves of hype.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Laraki says COVID-19 has made Color realize that its efforts in preventative health-based genetic testing are part of a larger category of population health — and the infrastructure that goes into making that happen. 

“What is the approach to make basic healthcare services extremely accessible? I think that’s the big transition that we went through last year,” he said. 

Some of that just happens to involve genetics.

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Originally published on Business Insider : Original article

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