The New York Times vs. Personal Genomics: Much Ado About Not Very Much

Earlier this month, there was speculation that The New York Times was preparing a piece “attacking” the “fledgling industry” of personal genomics (see: Linda Avey Versus the New York Times). The article in question, by reporter Andrew Pollack, was published over the weekend and, in retrospect, it’s hard to see what all the hubbub was about.

The title (Consumers Slow to Embrace the Age of Genomics) fairly reflects the tone of the rest of the article, which is a factual assessment of the business of personal genomics. In his piece, Pollack brings forth a standard set of issues confronting 23andMe and its peers (including Navigenics, deCODEme and Pathway Genomics). All are familiar, and most drive at a central challenge for these companies: demonstrating the value of their services and identifying customers willing to pay for them. (In a short, separate article that appears alongside, Pollack raises (but does not attempt to resolve) a much more controversial issue: whether personal genomics products represent medical tests or recreational services.) By and large, Pollack points out these challenges to the business of personal genomics without passing judgment. 

Two weeks ago, in Why the State of Personal Genomics is Not as Dire as You Think, I wrote that the personal genomics industry was generally healthy – particularly within the broader context of a global financial depression – and that while some businesses were bound to fall by the wayside, to confuse the struggles of some with the failure of the entire industry would be a mistake.

Similarly, Pollack writes that “it is not unusual, of course, for new technologies to fall short of enthusiastic early expectations, only to succeed more gradually.” He points out, correctly, that this “might take a few years and…raises the question of whether the pioneers can all survive then, or be overtaken by nimbler new players that might emerge.”

Even if some will undoubtedly find fault with Pollack’s tone, at least he has his facts correct. His is a sober and largely accurate assessment of the personal genomics industry as it exists today, presenting great opportunities and challenges, both business and scientific, in a difficult economic climate. Though it may lack the glamour of the now-famous spit party article that appeared in the Fashion & Style section, Pollack’s piece (which appears in the Business section) is hardly an obituary.