14 Jan Interview Dawn Barry the new President and Co-founder of LunaDNA
Q: In a sentence, what is LunaDNA going to do?
A: We will empower and enable individuals to share their genomic information to help fight disease, accelerate medical research and discoveries, and driver smarter healthcare.
Q: There are very well regarded professionals involved with LunaDNA. Why did so many of you leave your prominent jobs to start this startup?
A: I can only use myself as a proxy, but I believe we all saw, from our different positions and perspectives, how powerful DNA technologies have become. And how there is a real bottleneck in the ability to get that fantastic potential all the way into the healthcare and real world under the current setup that R&D is working under.
We can now sequence genomes quickly, accurately and inexpensively. However, we lack a common platform for the research and clinical translation worlds to organize themselves so that every participant is relevant, including the individuals themselves who give access to their biological and lifestyle data. Every individual holds a valuable piece of the puzzle to understand disease and health, and researchers are all in need of more data. Discovery is hindered by putting the majority of data into small silos.
The research community as a whole is expected to deliver new insights as fast and efficiently as possible, and they are best served if they have access to the different data sets that are available.
Then we all started hearing about how the blockchain can be used to keep track of where data comes from, manage who should have access to data and when, and that we can reward people who make the effort to make their data available to the research community. From there, it was clear a great team had to build that quickly.
That led to realization that we – a team representing leaders in engineering, consumer marketing, economics and science – are the right group of people to take on this exciting challenge and responsibility.
After that, it was an exciting choice to give up our otherwise very nice jobs, to get back to your question.
Q: How does the LunaDNA business model work and what makes it unique?
A: LunaDNA is the first genomic and medical research database powered by the blockchain and owned by the community. We’re leveraging the convergence of personal DNA testing popularity and blockchain as a framework for managing complex exchanges and data networks in a manner that is private and secure, and can serve up participation incentives in the form of digital transactions and encrypted currency. We established as a Public Benefit Corp to execute in a community-driven framework for the greater good of society, while still focusing on value creation. Unlike others who are exploring monetization strategies for the data or samples they possess, LunaDNA has the benefit of designing fit-for-purpose leveraging blockchain for research value and equitable partnerships with participants, and will pull in data and then structure it towards the ultimate goal of discovery.
Ultimately we see ourselves as platform and an agent.
Specifically around the Blockchain, its emergence creates a low-friction way to incentivize and deliver value for data sharing and it also allows for private, decentralized ownership in a manner that community members can trust. LunaDNA is first-of-its-kind to converge the advances in genomic testing and cryptocurrency for a medical community-owned database.
Q: Can you give us an example of how people will benefit by joining the LunaDNA community?
A: Genomics has captured the imagination. Personalized medicine messages are now mainstream. We have pockets of excellent examples of genomics improving care and saving lives, but it’s not standard care for many reasons, such as lack of greater predictive power versus general probabilities of outcomes. We believe community engagement is necessary to achieve a research platform with greater scale, information scope and individual diversity to yield more actionable medical discoveries.
People now have an opportunity to personally fight disease by joining the Luna community. If someone has a disease, their samples, healthcare info, and data are extra valuable for researchers. Healthy or sick, we all can help the world by making it easier to do disease research. In addition, there is an extra motivation factor: the Blockchain will keep track of how much impact and value your participation has now and in the future on different research projects, so you can be rewarded for your efforts. Over half of Luna will be owned by its contributors.
Q: Can you give us an example of how it will benefit researchers to get data access from LunaDNA?
A: By breaking down data silos and bringing individuals together we will more quickly aggregate enough samples to rise above the complexity of genomics and identify disease candidates. As individuals are joining the community to drive discovery, we believe that individuals will be more forthcoming in terms of the health and medical data required by researchers.
Because we are pulling in data, we have the opportunity to structure it optimally such that we minimize the effects of different formats and technologies. This will allow more seamless collaboration between researchers since the same data treatment will yield more reproducible results.
Another opportunity is for Luna to broker permissioned contributor-researcher engagement for follow up questions and next layer research thesis development. At present, a researcher is pressed to know all the questions before beginning their research. Most of the time, the samples/data are disconnected from the donor due to old systems, ways and privacy concerns, so creating a wall solves the privacy issue but doesn’t facilitate richer research, even when people want to participate.
Reimaging research is not a new idea. We are excited to be building a platform to enable this and will partner with leaders in social, legal and ethical disciplines to ensure privacy and trust is paramount.
Q: Your high-profile Illumina role and your TEDx talk made you well known in the genomics industry, but would you mind telling us about yourself, where your personal motivations comes from, and why you think accelerating medical research is so important?
A: I love the intersection of science and business because I’m passionate about putting the technology to work to solve meaningful problems. I believe engagement with the community is the best way to drive rapid and long-term adoption of technology, especially innovation that impacts our personal lives, such as healthcare. Finally, for me, health is the greatest gift we can ask for so that we can live a rich life. I’m fortunate to bring all these motivators to work every day to drive discoveries for better health and quality of life. I believe we need a revolution, not evolution, to accelerate actionable insights from research to drive a true era of precision medicine and ultimately healthier lives from which everyone can benefit.
My TEDx talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3SLHhWYxiY) was an honor and part of the growing discourse we’re sparking around genomics and community-driven discovery.
Q: Tell us about the other team members of LunaDNA?
A: Luna has a compelling cross disciplinary team of experienced leaders in engineering, science, economics and large scale consumer platforms.
This includes LunaDNA CEO and co-founder Bob Kain (former chief engineering officer, Illumina); co-founder David Lewis (life science, equity and credit investor; former director at CitiGroup); co-founder Dan Lin (Redemption Games CTO; Y Combinator alumni); co-founder Michael Witz (cryptocurrency investor; Redemption Games CEO and founder; Y Combinator alumni); and myself as co-founder and president. Additionally, Dr. Scott Kahn, former chief information officer at Illumina, is LunaDNA’s chief information officer.
LunaDNA’s distinguished advisory board includes Dr. David Barker, former vice president and chief scientific officer of Illumina; Dr. Carlos Bustamante, principal investigator and professor of biomedical data science and genetics at Stanford University; Dr. Francisco Garcia, currently the vice president of development at Illumina; Dr. Scott Kahn; Dr. Aristides A.N. Patrinos, member of the Kavli HUMAN Project’s board of advisors and former deputy director for research at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress; Ashley Van Zeeland, chief technology officer at Human Longevity, Inc. and co-founder of Cypher Genomics; and Ed Yu, chairman of Vascular Cures and former partner at PwC Strategy&Healthcare Practice.
Q: Can you allude to how you are going to tackle this huge challenge of evolving how research is done today?
A: Researchers want new ways to ask and answer important questions, but they’ve been limited by traditional systems that have not been built for a new and much more connected world. We are fortunate to have research groups reaching out to us saying that if we can help them get access to the people they need data and samples from, then that will make a huge difference for them. We also have inbound interest from future contributors including many individuals and leaders of foundations ready to contribute information.
Q: How will you create the critical mass of data in the different disease areas?
A: Our approach is twofold. One strategy will be to reach out to the 10 million individuals who already have genomic data today, explain our mission and the immense value of discovering disease links, educate them on their role in discovery, and invite them into our community. The second parallel strategy will be to strategically partner with a few disease organizations and work together to achieve success in their specific study.
Casting a wide net will allow us to achieve critical mass in many areas over time, while at the same time working with chosen organizations will catalyze short term success in specific areas. Every success is a proof point to the value or our database, further accelerating member growth.
Q: What would you like people to do if they want to help fight disease and become part of the LunaDNA community?
A: Visit our website (www.lunadna.com) and join our newsletter so we can start a conversation!