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Have you and your partner ever sat around dreaming up what your child might look like? If you’ve ever wanted to know what attributes your hypothetical kid might have, a new Denver-based personal genomics startup HumanCode can make that happen. The eight-month-old company launched its first product last week, a mobile phone application called BABYGlimpse, which uses DNA to offer genome-based predictions on traits that a child might inherit.
HumanCode’s CEO and co-founder Chris Glode thought of the idea back in 2015, when he and his wife were expecting their second child. “We had our ultrasound, like everyone does, at 10 weeks, and that’s the thing that people get really excited about. That’s the first time they can see their baby,” he says. “But it’s this blurry, black and white picture. It’s the same thing we’ve had for 50 years.”
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“I thought, wouldn’t parents be interested in learning about their own genetics, about their partner’s genetics, about what they could pass on to their baby?”
At the time, Glode was working at Under Armour as a digital product executive. He and his now-co-founder Ryan Trunck had sold their startup Map My Fitness to the company in 2013. It was there that Jennifer Lescallett, a former Affymetrix executive who approached him about introducing personal genomics into the fitness arena.
Lescallett, Trunck and Glode founded HumanCode in February of 2017. In April, they raised around $3 million in an initial fundraising campaign. In May and June, they put together a 10-person team comprised of programmers, computational biologists, and app designers, and settled into their office, in RiNo’s new TAXI development. And in October, BABYGlimpse was finally born.
HumanCode collaborates with a popular DNA sequencing company called Helix, which lets consumers pick and choose what kind of information they want to extract from their genome. Here’s how it all works.
Users who want to order BABYGlimpse are re-directed to the Helix website, where they can purchase the DNA-collecting kits and BABYGlimpse services for about $350. When the kits arrive, mom and dad each spit in a tube, and send the saliva-containing kits back to Helix.
Helix then sequences the couple’s genomes, meaning the DNA is analyzed to find the specific order of nucleotides (which make up DNA) within each person. That takes about two-to-four weeks, Glode says. After that, Helix will send the raw DNA data, which presents as a series of letters in a specific order, to HumanCode.
HumanCode inputs the broken-down DNA into a set of algorithms that’ll translate it into the information couples seek. The process, which Glode says takes about five minutes, determines each couple’s traits and then uses their information to predict how their kid might turn out. When the results are ready, parents get a notification through the BABYGlimpse app.
While medical-related genome sequencing called “carrier-screening” is a relatively common practice (usually to test for genetic disorders a child may inherit), Glode makes it clear that BABYGlimpse is very much, well, not that.
“We certainly aren’t doing that,” he says. “We only focus on fun things, like eye color, hair color, behavioral things, athleticism.”
Glode says part of the reason they aren’t testing for medical-related traits is that they want to act as a “relief” for the parents. Plus, he says, a lot of those tests are often done with a doctor.
BABYGlimpse’s results starts with an ancestry analysis, breaking down each parent’s origins and determining how that will translate to the baby. It tells what color hair, eyes and skin tone the baby will likely have.
Parents learn whether their kid will likely have a sweet tooth or not, whether they’re likely to take charge or follow the pack. The app can even forecast likely sleep patterns, predicting whether or not he or she will be a light or deep sleeper.
The list goes on—freckles, adult height, hair texture, male pattern baldness, type of muscle fiber, even how they’ll react to mosquito bites, or cilantro. The detail gets so specific, one might have to stop and ask: What’s the point?
“We envision a healthier, better world where everyone’s genetic data is available to them,” Glode says. “And they use that as much or as little as they want to make better decisions.”
While it certainly isn’t a cheap venture, consumer-facing DNA sequencing is quickly becoming more accessible. According to HumanCode, 15 years ago, it cost nearly $100 million to sequence the genome of one person. Today, it can cost anywhere from around $100 to $1,000, depending on what exactly is being sequenced. Part of that, Glode says, is because companies like Illumina are finding ways to bring down the costs of DNA sequencing equipment, from the machines to the chemicals they use. The other reason is because of the increasing popularity.
HumanCode estimates that roughly 10 million people have had some sort of DNA sequencing done. Companies like 23andMe or Ancestry DNA created an industry of consumer genomics, or personal genomics, allowing people to get to know their origins—and that gave way to businesses like Helix, which work with a number of companies like HumanCode that let consumers get different types of information from their personal genomes.
Once a customer buys an app like BABYGlimpse, Helix will store their genetic information, allowing the user to purchase an app down the line—to determine their odds of getting diabetes, for example, or maybe to get a personalized DNA-based diet plan—without having to provide a new sample. In other words, you’ll only have to spit in a tube once.
The industry is young, and Glode says that as advancements are made to bring costs down, it’ll only increase the wealth of information that personal genomics has to offer. Someday, he says, he fully expects that everyone will have their genomes sequenced.
HumanCode plans on growing its 10-person team to about 20 or 30 by this time next year, Glode says, with an aim to eventually expand its reach, potentially working with fertility tracking apps or fitness companies down the line.
“It’s something we’re thinking about a lot, [but] we just launched BABYGlimpse” he says. “So, right now, we’re just focused on getting it out there. We’re open to the idea that it could be tremendously successful, and we have a million ideas. We could spend ten years working on it…It’s just our starting point.”