How Montreal startup BiogeniQ is looking to challenge Google-backed 23andMe

Many young people follow in their family’s footsteps to choose a career, but for Étienne Crevier it was both his father’s life and death that propelled him to launch consumer genetic testing startup BiogeniQ.

A few years ago, Mr. Crevier was studying genetics at the University of Montreal and aspired to become an academic researcher. His father Yves, a physician, began participating in a Quebec genetics project that was exploring how preventive medicine could be adopted into medical practice. But in 2012, Yves passed away from cardiac arrest.

“It was really a shock for the whole family,” Mr. Crevier said. “My father was in good health, good shape, normal weight, not smoking, not drinking. He was 61 years old.” “If something like this was in the market at the time, maybe we would have saved my dad.”

Questions weighed on Mr. Crevier and so he started to speak with other geneticists to look into the causes of his father’s death. “I found out that he was probably genetically predisposed to that condition and if he had known, yes — he could have lived his life differently,” Mr. Crevier said.

“It was odd to me that with our technology and all the tests we have available, we were not able to do something about this.”

That question propelled Mr. Crevier to abandon his academic dream for entrepreneurship, launching BiogeniQ in August 2013. The 26-year-old aims to provide individuals with an affordable blueprint of their DNA, allowing them to make informed lifestyle decisions and focus on health prevention, rather than treatment.

BiogeniQ currently provides personalized health assessments of an individual’s nutritional needs, ancestry and tolerance to medications, and has a fourth test under development, PrediqQx, that will analyze people’s predisposition to diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Its most popular service, NutriQx, analyzes how an individual’s metabolism reacts with 20 different nutrients such as folate, Vitamin C and butin. The $400 test comes with a report that is explained in a two-hour consultation with a nutritionist, followed by weekly emails of recipes and grocery lists which Mr. Crevier says helps “put recommendations into actions.”

“It is a simple ecosystem that’s not just a report you read once and then it’s done. It’s for you for the rest of your life, and we walk you through the steps,” Mr. Crevier said.

That ecosystem is one of the differences between BiogeniQ and other genetic profiling companies, such as Google-backed 23andMe — which mails customers an at-home saliva collection kit, then emails health and ancestry reports based on that spit sample in two to six weeks.

In October, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company — co-founded by CEO Anne Wojcicki in 2006 — expanded into Canada despite being blocked in the U.S. from offering its full US$99 service ($199 in Canada).

The service now only provides genealogical information to U.S. clients after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered it to stop revealing to customers their odds of contracting diseases without clinical evidence. The FDA was concerned patients would take results as diagnoses and seek unnecessary medical interventions.

Mr. Crevier also sees a danger in 23andMe’s direct-to-consumer approach: “You’re forcing them to auto-diagnose themselves, and that is a very slippery slope.”

Biogeniq, by contrast, complies with Canadian regulations, Mr. Crevier said, because its services are a “tool to empower health care professionals”  at health clinics and pharmacies.

Will Mitchell, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says there’s uncertainty surrounding the medical value of genetic profile tests but he sees upside potential.

“We’re still in the learning stages of genetic profiles. We’re not at a stage yet when you can look at a genetic map and a physician knows exactly what it means,” Mr. Mitchell said.

“But there’s also a certain amount of curiosity factor with this kind of product. Most are intrigued by what’s going on inside of us. And the more health care professionals work with this testing and interpretation, the better in turn we’ll get treatment and pretreatment.”

BiogeniQ recently was named one of nine recipients of the Spin Master Innovation Fund award — a $50,000 financing and mentorship package co-financed by children’s toy company Spin Master, the Business Development Bank of Canada and Futurpreneur Canada.

While Biogeniq’s services are currently available at clinics and pharmacies in Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and next month in Newfoundland, the startup is also eyeing global expansion.

“My dad liked to tell his patients to eat an apple or get a dog — things like that — to try to convince them to change their lifestyle instead of resorting to drugs,” Mr. Crevier said.

“He probably would have loved to use these tests in his own practice, and if something like this was in the market at the time, maybe we would have saved my dad.”

Financial Post | Ontario