Genetic testing services from companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe have risen in popularity in the past decade, attracting consumers who are eager to learn more about their lineage or risk of contracting certain types of disease.
But there are plenty of smaller players trying to carve out a following in this industry. Milwaukee-based GenoPalate is one of them. The two-year-old startup recently raised some seed funding to help it ramp up sales of its DNA testing service that analyzes customers’ genetic data in order to make suggestions about foods they should eat.
“We want to be the specialist in personalized nutrition recommendations using DNA information,” Sherry Zhang, founder and CEO of GenoPalate, tells Xconomy.
GenoPalate is part of a growing marketplace of services peddling DNA-based insights to consumers, spanning categories like ancestry, health, fitness, and nutrition. It’s still unclear how useful and reliable some of these genetic tests are, and it’s hard to predict how popular such services will be in the long run. But the competition seems to be heating up. Zhang’s company, for example, is up against several rivals, including services from Azumio, DNAFit, Arivale, and FitNow, the Boston-based maker of the Lose It workout and meal-tracking app.
To help give GenoPalate a boost, the startup recently raised more than $300,000 from investors as part of a seed funding round, Zhang says. The financing was a combination of debt and equity funding, and six investors participated in the investment, according to an SEC filing.
Gener8tor was one of the participating investors, Zhang says. That Wisconsin-based organization runs training programs for startups, including one GenoPalate graduated from in November. Another was the BrightStar Wisconsin Foundation, which invests $50,000 in graduates of Gener8tor’s core accelerator program that have permanent employees in Wisconsin.
Zhang says her startup plans to use some of the proceeds from the funding round to boost sales of its DNA testing kits. GenoPalate began shipping the kits in early 2017 and, so far, nearly 500 people have received recommendations from the company based on genetic traits that it says shape their nutritional needs.
Like Ancestry and 23andMe, GenoPalate customers pay the company to ship them a test kit. It includes a tube that you spit in and mail back to GenoPalate so it can analyze the DNA sample. Customers also provide the startup with information about their health history, current height and weight, and food preferences.
GenoPalate then works with an outside laboratory—Zhang declined to name it—to analyze the DNA from a customer’s saliva sample, searching for particular genetic variants that the company says are linked to health and diet. The resulting information might, for example, suggest the customer metabolizes particular foods slower than the average person, Zhang says.
Zhang, who is an assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Clinical Nutrition at the Medical College of Wisconsin, says she decided to launch GenoPalate after researching how one’s genome interacts with the outside environment. She says such interactions can lead to skewed body fat distribution and resistance to insulin, two components of metabolic syndrome, which is estimated to affect 47 million Americans, and is one of Zhang’s research interests.
“If we help people know more about their genetic makeup, that can really help them map out a nutritional regimen,” she says. “We can help them to eat for their genes and prevent the events that will lead to the development of metabolic syndrome,” a combination of disorders that increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
After GenoPalate and its lab partner complete their analysis of a customer’s DNA, the startup sends him a report with information about the nutrients his body craves most; which foods he should consider avoiding; and his tolerance for caffeine, alcohol, carbohydrates, and other substances, Zhang says. A customer might also learn that he has sensitivities to gluten or dairy, or has an above-average likelihood of developing hypertension and other chronic conditions.
Of course, it remains to be seen how useful consumers will find all of this information—and whether it will translate into improved health.
It currently costs $299 (plus tax and shipping fees) to receive a test kit and later, a personalized report from GenoPalate. The cost is $89 for customers who have already had their DNA analyzed by services like 23andMe.
GenoPalate’s team currently includes 10-plus employees, three of whom are full-time, Zhang says.
The startup is considering launching its own line of healthy snacks and shipping boxes of them to customers each month. That could help GenoPalate build a stronger base of steady customers, she says.
Asked whether her startup plans to raise another round of outside investment in the future or fuel its near-term growth through test kit sales, Zhang says she’s “open to either option.”
“We want to make GenoPalate sustainable,” she says. “Ask me again in six months.”