DNA testing growth slows

First came the news from 23andMe.

The headlines all read pretty much the same way: “23andMe slashes 14% of workforce amid slump in DNA testing market.”1

The company’s CEO, Anne Wojcicki, was quoted as saying she was surprised by the downturn in the market for DNA testing, attributing it to both apparent market saturation and concerns for user privacy.2

Then AncestryDNA chimed in.

And the headlines read pretty much the same: “Ancestry to lay off 6% of workforce because of a slowdown in the consumer DNA-testing market.”3

That company’s CEO, Margo Georgiadis, in a blog post, said there had been “a slowdown in consumer demand across the entire DNA category” and noted that “future growth will require a continued focus on building consumer trust…”4

Before either of those reports came another, mostly unnoticed by genealogical fans of DNA testing — from the company that makes the chips and machines to do the tests themselves. In September of 2019, Illumina announced layoffs after it had drastically cut its earnings projection, noting it was being hurt by the downturn in direct-to-consumer testing.5

And one genetic genealogist who tracks database sizes among the testing companies had sounded the alarm even before then: early last summer, Leah Larkin wrote in The DNA Geek blog, “I have been tracking their database sizes for a couple of years now (with data retroactive to 2013), and the decline in growth rate is obvious. Yes, the databases are still growing, but they’re growing more slowly than before.”6 In a January 2020 update, she noted a continued slowdown across the board, adding that “Only MyHeritage has outperformed expectations.”7

So… is the party over?

party is over

To which The Legal Genealogist has only one possible answer.

It depends.

It depends, first, on what party we think we’re attending.

The early days of direct-to-consumer DNA testing were a free-for-all. Nobody worried about rules, because there weren’t any. Few of us bothered getting informed consent from our cousins when we asked them to test; few of us even gave informed consent — we just tested, thrilled with the promise of what DNA could tell us. And every time we opened up our results there was something new and exciting there. A match! A whole 9.9cM in common in three 3.3cM segments! How exciting that DNA can solve all our brick walls! All without any downsides!

That party, for sure, is over. We know better now, or we should. DNA is never enough by itself, without some additional evidence, to prove a genealogical relationship,8 small segments are — in Blaine Bettinger’s words — “poison M&Ms,”9 and there are clear and present downsides of testing that testers need to know about before they test.

It depends, second, on the “party favors” the companies offer with their tests. Continued development of useful features? Check. Updates of ethnicity estimates based on expanded reference populations? Check. Analytical tools to understand better and more completely just what a match does and doesn’t tell us? Check. Stagnant features or prettying up the website without things we can really use? Meh. There’s a reason little kids come home from some parties clutching their goody bags tightly… and why they come home from others having tossed those goody bags at the first opportunity.

And it depends, third, on whether the party has gatekeepers and bouncers — or, in more technical speak, data security and a commitment to user privacy. This one is, I suspect, going to be the make-or-break point for the industry long-term. Now that we know just how much of our personal stories are told in our genes, and just how interested forces outside of genealogy are intent on getting their hands on that data, having solid evidence from the party hosts that they’re as interested in our privacy as we are is going to determine whether we stay for the last dance… or find another party altogether.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Is the party over?,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 9 Feb 2020).

SOURCES

  1. See e.g. Sara O’Brien, “23andMe slashes 14% of workforce amid slump in DNA testing market,” CNN Business, posted 23 Jan 2020 (https://www.cnn.com/ : accessed 9 Feb 2020).
  2. Ibid.
  3. See e.g. Christina Farr, “Ancestry to lay off 6% of workforce because of a slowdown in the consumer DNA-testing market,” CNBC, posted 5 Feb 2020 (https://www.cnbc.com/ : accessed 9 Feb 2020).
  4. Margo Georgiadis, “Our Path Forward,” Ancestry Blog, posted 5 Feb 2020 (https://blogs.ancestry.com/ : accessed 9 Feb 2020).
  5. Christina Farr, “Illumina, maker of DNA sequencing machines, had a small round of layoffs in September,” CNBC, posted 26 Sep 2019 (https://www.cnbc.com/ : accessed 9 Feb 2020).
  6. Leah Larkin, “Genealogical Database Growth Slows,” The DNA Geek, posted 22 June 2019 (https://thednageek.com/ : accessed 9 Feb 2020).
  7. Ibid., “Autosomal DNA Database Growth,” posted 17 Jan 2020.
  8. Judy G. Russell, “DNA doesn’t lie!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 Oct 2017 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 9 Feb 2020).
  9. Blaine T. Bettinger, “A Small Segment Round-Up,” The Genetic Genealogist, posted 29 Dec 2017 (https://thegeneticgenealogist.com/ : accessed 9 Feb 2020).
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