Billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s group is getting into genetic mapping, looking to make a health care trend led by disruptive US startups like 23andMe more affordable and widespread in India’s growing consumer market.
The energy-to-ecommerce conglomerate will roll out within weeks a comprehensive 12,000-rupee ($145) genome sequencing test, according to Ramesh Hariharan, chief executive officer of Strand Life Sciences Pvt., which has developed the product. Reliance Industries Ltd., led by Asia’s richest person, acquired the Bengaluru-based firm in 2021 and now owns about 80% of it.
The genome test, which is about 86% cheaper than other offerings available locally, can reveal a person’s predisposition to cancers, cardiac and neuro-degenerative ailments as well as identify inherited genetic disorders, he said.
The project to bring affordable personal gene-mapping to India’s 1.4 billion people — on track to be the world’s most populous nation — will potentially create a treasure trove of biological data that can aid drug development and disease prevention in the region. It also dovetails with Ambani’s ambitions to dive further into the world of data — he has often called it the “new oil” — as he pivots his $192 billion empire beyond refining into consumer and digital services.
“It’ll be the cheapest such genomic profile in the world,” Hariharan said, who also co-founded Strand Life Sciences. “We’re going out at an aggressive price point to drive adoption as it gives us a chance to build a viable business in preventive health care.”
Health Red Flags
While ancestry reports from 23andMe can be bought for $99, its health plus ancestry reports cost $199. Full genome sequencing for health red flags costs more than $1,000 from Indian rivals, MapmyGenome and Medgenome. Cheapest offerings from some Chinese firms come for as low as 599 yuan ($87) but may not map the entire gamut of diseases that Reliance-owned Strand aims to detect.
A representative for Reliance Industries did not respond to an emailed request for comments.
Price disruption comes naturally to Ambani, who deployed a similar cut-throat strategy after it entered retail in 2006 and telecommunications in 2016, blowing out competition until Reliance emerged the market leader in both sectors.
The global genetic testing market was valued at $12.7 billion in 2019 and is expected to touch $21.3 billion by 2027, according to a report from Allied Market Research.
The new genome testing service “will ideally lead to creation of a big pool of data which will help development of targeted treatment and early intervention,” said Vishal Manchanda, senior vice president at Systematix Institutional Equities, when told about Reliance’s new product.
But low prices alone may not be enough to lure people in a market like India where awareness of such services and their benefits are relatively untested. Though cheaper than global rivals, Reliance’s $145 price tag is still a lot for the average consumer in India, where nearly two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
Reliance’s digital services and its recent e-commerce acquisitions can be deployed to push its genome testing product, which just needs blood samples that can be collected at home.
Currently being piloted by a small number of early testers, it will be aggressively marketed by Reliance in the coming weeks on its MyJio app, with an outreach of 425 million wireless subscribers of Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., health app JioHealthHub and the recently acquired e-pharmacy, Netmeds, Hariharan said.
While a lot of consumer interest in the US has been around tracking ancestry or characteristics as such as athletic abilities, hair texture and propensity toward obesity — tests labeled ‘recreational genetics’ — the longer-term business model of these services centers around preventative health care.
With more genomic data, global drugmakers could potentially develop new drugs as well as gain insight into how to better target existing therapies. This could be particularly useful in genetically under-mapped India, for example in helping prove a genetic link to certain over-represented diseases in the country.
Still, these ambitions have yet to come to fruition anywhere, and early movers like 23andMe are now facing regulatory pressure: the US Food and Drug Administration barred from the company from making any health-related claims in 2013 and put it through a two-year review process. In 2015, the regulator allowed 23AndMe to offer health-related testing.
While Strand said it will incorporate latest scientific research in interpreting the test results, India has still not set regulatory standards for genetic tests. Also, it will be the company’s first product in an inherently fast-changing and complicated scientific field.
Hariharan said the new genome testing being rolled out by the Reliance group will “set the standards” for India. “We will offer responsible consumer genomics by staying close to the science.”