Old Dog, New Tests: Embark Uses DNA Kit to Promote Canine Health

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin — Human genetic testing is an increasingly popular way to gain bio-intelligence about ourselves and potentially ward off illness. Now, some startups want to enable us to do the same for man’s best friend.

Embark Veterinary is an Austin, TX, startup that is offering what it says is the first canine DNA test to better sort out Fido’s future healthcare needs. “Maximizing health has been a factor in human health for the last 20 years,” says Ryan Boyko, co-founder of Embark. “They’ve been doing that for themselves. Now, they want that for their dog.”

Embark has developed a DNA test for dogs, one with a 200,000-marker genotyping array. (Think 23andMe for our canine friends.) Using a swab, owners swipe the slobber off of their dogs and send it back to the startup. The sample is run through the company’s “Embark Dog DNA Test Kit” and, the founders say, the results can give owners and vets information on the dog’s genetic makeup, what diseases they might be susceptible to getting, and other physical markers.

Adam Boyko, an Embark co-founder and Ryan’s brother, points to his own mixed-breed dog as an example. “I have no idea how big he should be; he looks happy to me,” he says. “Lots of dogs are obese but most of the owners don’t know it.”

Embark says the plan is to have the DNA test on the market this spring. The kits will be sold online and through a pilot project with a few veterinarians for $100 to $200.

Embark is tapping into a lucrative market. Americans spent more than $60 billion last year on their furry companions, the bulk of which was for food, veterinary services and medications, and accessories, according to the American Pet Products Association.

There are other companies in this market. Mars Veterinary, a subsidiary of consumer products company Mars, introduced its first dog DNA test called Wisdom Panel in 2007. The test retails for about $85. Also, a Canadian company called DNA My Dog offers a test for about $60.

Adam Boyko says the key difference in Embark’s test is that it is “research-grade” with more than 220,000 biomarkers. “Products on the market now only test a small number of markers,” he says, meaning a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand. “We can give much more comprehensive and high-resolution results.”

The Boykos have had a long interest in the history and health of dogs. Ryan Boyko, trained as a computer scientist, took a senior seminar a decade ago on dog cognition and evolution and has participated in studies on village dog DNA — i.e. not pure breeds — to study dogs’ evolution. Adam is an assistant professor at Cornell University and runs a lab there focused on canine genomics.

“We work with owners to recruit dogs for studies that we do,” Adam Boyko says. “Lots of owners would take part in the research and then would want to know all about their own dog. We realized we weren’t really set up to do a consumer interface.”

So, last year, the Boykos partnered with Spencer Wells, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a former explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, to found Embark last year. The company has eight employees and has raised $1.7 million in a seed round from investors such as Aspiration Growth Opportunities Fund in Los Angeles, Slow Ventures in San Francisco, and Notley Ventures in Austin.

Another aspect of Embark is the database of canine genetic information that will be created. Since Embark will be gathering the data on a research-grade chip, Adam Boyko says that the data can be used in his Cornell lab to help further research in dog health.

“One of the things that holds back research into canine cancer and behavior or  immune diseases is that we just don’t have a large enough cohort of dogs that have been analyzed properly,” he says. “If we can push the needle on that, that’s huge.”