Weekend reading: 23andMe’s exploding plastic inevitable fate–and what might have been

23andMe may go private, break up, or go bankrupt. Not many other options. A major end-of-week news item in healthcare was that 23andMe, the beleaguered genetic testing company, may be taken private by its CEO and founder Anne Wojcicki per an SEC 8-K filing on 18 April and a press release issued the same day. Currently, she is a major shareholder controlling more than 20% of the total outstanding shares with ‘supervoting’ rights that entitle her to approximately 49% voting power. She filed a Schedule 13D the prior day indicating her intent to buy all outstanding shares. No offer value nor timing was specified. Bloomberg, LinkedIn

23andMe shares closed Friday at $0.48 on the Nasdaq Global Select Market. On Wednesday, they closed at an all-time low of $0.36. It has not had a close above $1.00 since 29 September 2023. In November, Nasdaq notified them that the company had 180 days to bring the share price above $1.00 or face delisting–and there is little time remaining on the clock. CNBC

In February, after a disastrous fiscal Q3 with net loss tripling and revenue down 32%, Wojcicki floated the idea of separating the consumer genomics/virtual care and the commercial genomic database/drug discovery businesses but has turned now to taking the company private and fully under her control. Its market cap is now about $200 million with $200 million cash on hand, creating a zero-sum situation. The release states that on 28 March, the board of directors formed a special committee to evaluate alternatives to maximizing shareholder value. But when ‘shareholder value’ has to be approved by one shareholder with 49% of the votes, the BOD’s options may be constrained.  

What a difference in three years. In February 2021 after much anticipation, 23andMe went public in a SPAC founded by Richard Branson and soared to a $3.5 billion valuation. It achieved a $4.8 billion market capitalization after buying in October 2021 Lemonaid, a quick-diagnosis/quick-prescription telehealth company for minor but troublesome conditions that was touted, but never became, a nexus of, to quote the announcement, “healthcare that is based on the combination of your genes, your environment, and your lifestyle.”  At the time, its future seemed unlimited between consumer genetic testing (genotyping, not diagnostic) for health and ancestry, building up Lemonaid into a full-featured virtual diagnostics and health service, while taking the deidentified data and marketing it for commercial research to Big Pharma, initially via a five-year exclusive deal with GSK.

That commercial use proved to be a sticky wicket with consumers concerned about how their data was being protected, with opting out made (deliberately?) opaque and difficult. Other than Lemonaid, 23andMe failed to successfully diversify beyond the core ‘one and done’ genotype testing until very late last year. Last February, after their disastrous 6.9 million record data breach turned the spotlights on, the Wall Street Journal revealed that a pricey subscription program for lifestyle counseling that included clinical exome sequencing plus Lemonaid called Total Health failed to gain traction after its late 2023 debut and their in-house drug discovery moved only two out of 50 into early-stage human trials. The GSK deal expired and was not renewed. 23andMe was also torching through cash. [TTA 2 Feb]. The thick and sticky icing on the cake was 23andMe’s antagonistic response to the breached customers, blaming them for recycling passwords and using multiple features they offered [TTA 19 Jan]. This was rightfully blasted in the industry and the subject of multiple consumer class-action lawsuits.

In this Editor’s opinion, 23andMe’s ship must pass between the Scylla and Charybdis of financial choices. Splitting up a near-worthless company into three money-losing parts, like Gaul, is rearranging deck chairs on the sinking ship (to really scramble our metaphors). In either a Chapter 7 (closure) or Chapter 11 (reorganization) option, Wojcicki would lose control and her spot as CEO, wiping out the shareholders, but she might retain some value in Chapter 11 in the IP, depending on how it is structured. Then finally, there is Wojcicki’s buying out the other shareholders. That is dependent on her having or being able to access the cash from investors. None of this solves the failure of the business model, which was for most customers ‘one and done’ testing, not subscribing to additional services, and unsubscribing from any further data use. They saw nothing attractive or useful in the other services. Then as a member to be hacked and blamed for it? That is a run, do not walk, to the exit.

Chapter 7s are usually forced situations where there is little value left in the company other than intellectual property (as in Pear) and equipment (if applicable), zero confidence in management and product delivery (Olive AI), withdrawal of key client business, collapsing in a heap of litigation (Theranos), and any of the above coupled with overwhelming debt that lenders will no longer carry (Babylon Health).

A Must Read for your weekend is Arundhati Parmar’s gem of an essay on 23andMe in MedCityNews–the company’s current dilemma contrasted with what if co-founder Linda Avey had not been ousted in 2009. She expertly sets off interviews with Avey and Wojcicki into an illuminating virtual debate that should be part of an MBA candidate’s case study. Parmar sets them off with analyst views, the experience of a referred 23andMe customer who illuminates the life-changing nature of genetic testing as well as 23andMe’s service drawbacks, and a sparkling view from an empty 23andMe cocktail reception at this past January’s JPM.

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