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.
What are some of the big challenges you face in this industry and as the CEO of Embark?
We are fundamentally different than the other dog DNA tests, and like any good marketing [campaign], you try to play on your strengths. A consumer who doesn’t really know what to pay attention to, you’re trying to show them why it’s worth spending a bit more to get a product that actually has one hundred times as much genetic information [as the competitors], and why that has real benefits for the end customer. So I think it’s getting across our differentiation [is the biggest challenge].
A very well supported scientific answer [about this differentiation] takes, minutes of time [to explain], and is not something that lends itself to a very simple marketing statement. We are built by scientists, and we very much pride ourselves on holding ourselves to a high standard. So our challenge is, “How do you boil down a complex message in a way that retains the truth, and also is punchy and short, and people immediately get it?”
You have the background in science, obviously, all the research you did leading up to the founding of Embark, but maybe not [as much of a background on] the business side. How have you been adapting to the business side of being CEO?
I have a little bit, as I took a break from academia for about three years. There was a group starting at [management consulting firm] Oliver Wyman, started by two people inside the company. This was back in 2009, the end of 2009. Basically the idea was to build a world class big data analytics and presentation team to help, initially, the retail clients that Oliver Wyman had and then they expanded into healthcare and other areas. This was when big data was such a big buzz word. So I found out about it and actually jumped at the chance [to join], after I interviewed with the couple of people who were founding it. I mean, they were just wonderful. And so I was the first one hired in. It was just the three of us for about six, seven months, and we had to deliver the first couple products ourselves. And when that was successful, we got the green light to grow the team.
So we actually had to be very thoughtful about, “How do we build a team?” Because we didn’t want it to feel like the rest of the consulting companies felt like. Not that that was a bad thing, but that we wanted to be able to attract people who didn’t want to travel constantly. We wanted a better work-life balance, but were also extremely dedicated, and smart, and talented, and all those other things. And so we had to be very thoughtful about how we built the team, how we managed it.
We built it up to over 50 people before I left. It grew to over 100, became its own group at Oliver Wyman actually. A few years later, I recruited my old boss who started that team and is now our CTO here at Embark. So I did at least have that experience, as well as being able to lean on our CTO, who not only had that experience, but also had been a management consultant for about 10 years before that.
So that’s definitely helped. But obviously that’s not quite the same thing. We didn’t have to deal with VCs. We didn’t have to deal with setting up our own tax [payment system] and all of that other stuff.
Other than that, I read a lot of different people who have either had successful careers in business or mentored lots of successful leaders. I have a CEO coach. Having a coach that I talk to relatively frequently, generally weekly, helps make sure that as the fires are raining down and you’re putting out one fire and then another, you have a moment to pick your head up and have somebody say, “You know the right thing to do is to spend some time doing this other stuff, even though there’s fires going on.” So I think that’s been helpful.
I just try to understand the people who work for me, which definitely, at the scale we have now with 30 people, is easier. I think that if you hire well…that’s actually I guess the first and most important thing. If you hire well, all of your problems become easier [to solve]. If you hire well and then you genuinely care about the people who work for you, with a reasonable level of thoughtfulness, you can accomplish a lot.