23andMe poaches another Genentech vet as it delves into biotech

23andMe Vice President Robert Gentleman

23andMe, the Silicon Valley maker of personalized gene tests, has picked off another Genentech luminary to help it evolve into a biotech company, recruiting the famed drugmaker's head of bioinformatics.

Robert Gentleman, the former senior director of bioinformatics and computational biology at Genentech, is coming aboard to serve a similar role at 23andMe, helping the company manage its expansive database of genomic profiles. The company has made its name selling spit tests for $99 a pop, in the process gathering genetic information on more than 850,000 people. Now, as 23andMe looks to put that trove of data to use in biotech R&D, the company will task Gentleman with designing methods to sort it all out.

Gentleman, who handled computation biology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center before joining Genentech, will primarily work with Richard Scheller, 23andMe's recently hired chief science officer and head of therapeutics. Scheller, also a Genentech expatriate, is heading up the company's efforts to develop drugs, planning to use that aforementioned mountain of genetic data to spotlight new targets and therapeutic avenues. Gentleman, with his expertise in bioinformatics, is tasked with using data analytics and theoretical models to make the process more efficient.

"My hope is that my experience can help bring better treatments to market fast for the patients who need them most," Gentleman said in a statement. "I'm excited to have the opportunity to work with the 23andMe community so we can together find these great cures."

23andMe began with the ethos of democratizing genomics, selling its spit kits with the promise of helping anyone unlock the secrets to his or her DNA. The company ran into a regulatory roadblock in 2013, however, when the FDA deemed the so-called Personal Genome Service to be a diagnostic that requires agency approval, restricting 23andMe's marketing practices and forcing the company to pivot. 23andMe has spent the ensuing years behaving more like a biotech than a tech startup, staffing up with regulatory experts and hanging out with Big Pharma on the way to securing its first FDA clearance to test for a rare genetic disease.

Now, with the likes of Scheller and Gentleman in the fold, the company believes it's well prepared for its next incarnation. Like Gentleman, Scheller brings in a long resume of innovation, and his most recent post, executive vice president of research and early development at Genentech (or gRED), saw him oversee the storied outfit's work from discovery through proof of concept, leading basic research as the company developed game-changing medicines like Perjeta and Kadcyla.

- read the statement