You can do a lot of interesting things with $194 billion dollars and a globally dominant platform, even if those things aren't exactly aligned with your historical operations.
For instance, you can thrust a team of industry experts into stealth mode and build an electric car (allegedly). You can launch an e-commerce platform into an already crowded market. You can even build geeky, sci-fi watches and test out luxury lineups just for fun (even if most people don't quite understand the value of luxury brands). And, apparently, you can also throw your weight around the growing opportunities in DNA sequencing.
We're talking about Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), of course, which is setting its eyes on the exploding DNA sequencing market, according to an exclusive article from MIT Technology Review. It may seem odd at first, but the move was inevitable in hindsight. That's because tech platforms with massive user bases likely represent the missing link for the DNA sequencing market, which has made tremendous progress in data analysis in recent years, but often struggles to collect massive data sets in short time periods, if at all.
It's a perfect pairing, but what does it mean for Apple?
The newest Apple offering: ResearchKit
Apple took its first step into the DNA sequencing market by opening up its vast user base to public and private researchers through a new software platform, called ResearchKit, that allows scientists to conduct medical surveys and studies through iPhones. Considering that one-in-five smartphones in the world is an iPhone, this is no small first step.
Early apps developed using ResearchKit include mPower, which tracks symptoms of Parkinson's disease and recruited thousands of subjects in several days. The app collects data from both direct surveys and by utilizing sensors within the phone to track dexterity, balance, and walking ability. That data will be analyzed by researchers at Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit research organization, that is advised by academic researchers at MIT, UCSF, and others. The goal is to discover why symptoms among individuals with Parkinson's disease can vary, what causes them to vary, and eventually develop ways to better manage the disease.
Medical research conducted by other apps using ResearchKit will use genetic data, survey data, sensor data, or all of the above to accomplish similar goals. Apple won't be involved in collecting or testing DNA (yet); those responsibilities will fall onto researchers and health services. But the long-term opportunity extends far beyond supplementary revenue generated from the App Store.
Consider that for studies requiring genetic data, iPhone users will need to get their DNA sequenced, likely coordinated through local diagnostics companies such as Quest Diagnostics. The final sequence data would be sent to two destinations: the researchers conducting the study and the user's iPhone (probably attached to their Apple ID). Then, things could get a little crazy.
What happens when your DNA is on your smartphone?
Your genetic data will always be just that: yours. But it's conceivable that an iPhone in the not-too-distant future will have a "share genetics" setting, not unlike the "share location" setting integrated into nearly every mobile device and many applications today. Why would that be necessary?
Pure speculation at this point, but mobile DNA data could find applications in shopping for products in-tune with your genotype for specific conditions (like skin dryness), field research. There could also be DNA-based dating apps, streamlined doctor's visits, and more. Anything is possible.
How will Apple monetize such a future? To be fair, new business models will likely emerge (and be necessary). But it could generate revenue from advertising genotype-specific products to consumers, taking a finder's fee on sales, or by getting more directly involved in the market with a platform of its own.
What does it mean for investors?
Since the biggest thing holding back the DNA sequencing market has been swift access to large populations, it stands to reason that Apple won't be the only tech company looking to leverage its users. Indeed, Google has been dabbling in DNA sequencing since mid-2013. The strategy here is a bit different -- for now, anyway. Google Genomics is seeking to store sequenced genomes in the cloud for $25 per sequence per year. Collect enough sequences, and it empowers the same consumer sequencing revolution as direct mobile engagement (which Google will likely jump into, too). And there's no reason other platforms, from Facebook to Amazon, won't also join the fray.
No matter who gets involved, there is a huge opportunity brewing in DNA sequencing and the numerous offshoot technologies waiting to be created. It's great to see Apple taking the first steps toward monetizing what will eventually become an important consumer market.
Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio, CAPS page, previous writing for The Motley Fool, and follow him on Twitter to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology field.
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