Dogs aren’t just a man’s best friend. For Ryan Boyko, they’re a culmination of a career in science and DNA.
Growing up, with a father in the military, Boyko familiarized himself with dogs every time the family moved. “There’s like an album of me with like every neighbor’s dog as we moved,” he says.
Later in life, Boyko, CEO of Embark, which makes dog DNA kits, took a seminar on canines and evolution in college, while studying computer science at Harvard. After college, he traveled the world, collecting samples of dogs and trying to understand the origin of the house pet.
What’s more, is Boyko’s passion for dogs runs in the family. His brother Adam, who came with him to Africa as he studied dog origins, worked as the professor of dog genetics at Cornell. As 23andMe started to become popular for humans to discover their origins, the Boyko brothers recognized the same DNA tactics could be used to discover the background of dogs. They kept expecting someone to do it, before finally just going out on their own and starting Embark.
Ryan Boyko recently talked with Chief Executive about opportunities in dog DNA, how he transitioned from a career in science to running a business like Embark, and more. Below are excerpts from this conversation.
The pet industry is big business. Take-home DNA tests are becoming big business. What opportunities do you see with offering dog DNA kits?
The personalized healthcare industry for humans has hundreds, possibly over a thousand, entrants…between startups, established businesses, and university and institutions [entering the fray]. And a lot of it is enabled by genetic advances. On the dog side, it’s really in its infancy. While the dog market is ultimately going to be smaller than the human market, it’s got so much fewer entrants into that space that I think it’s relatively underserved compared to where the market’s going to be. And so the unique thing about our test is that we’re testing hundreds of thousands of genetic markers. It actually is analogous to 23andMe or Ancestry.com.
So you can actually use that data to discover new genes that cause different things, or that are protective from different diseases. Those kinds of things that promote longevity. You can also even use it to identify the therapeutics that would be most likely to help certain cancers. That’s not an application we’re currently doing, but it’s not a far step from where we are. And so that’s what’s fundamentally different than any other dog DNA test out there. We have this database that is unique in size and scope, and that’s really going to enable a lot of discoveries that will sell more genetic tests. We can partner with pharma to use this to develop pharmaceutical products that are tailored to a specific dog genome.
Who are your main customers? Is it mostly direct to consumer? Are you trying to sell to the big pet retail shops, like the Petcos of the world?
We are primarily direct to consumer online. Actually, a good segment of our customer base are also dog breeders. I have a shelter dog, but obviously, breeders produce a large percentage of the dogs in America. We want to help the health of all dogs. They also obviously have more immediate applications too, a larger number of applications, because you can actually use it to select which dogs to mate with which dogs to produce healthier offspring. And then we sell a small amount through the veterinary channel. We had a lot of demand on that side. We haven’t built up all the features and support that the [vet] side demands, but we certainly will over time.