SXSW

Austin-based startup Embark aims to make mark with DNA testing for dogs

Embark launched Tuesday at South by Southwest. The company tests and analyzes dog DNA for traits, diseases. 

Posted March 15th, 2016

Story highlights
  • Genetic testing for dogs? The new frontier in DNA testing. 
  • Embark hopes to be the '23andMe' of the dog world.

Austin startup Embark said Tuesday it plans to offer one of the most exhaustive saliva-based DNA tests for dogs on the market. The company says the tests can help arm owners with information about how to treat hereditary diseases or other disorders in their pets. 

Embark CEO Ryan Boyko

The company also wants to use the dog DNA data it collects to encourage genetic mapping and research, with the aim of better diagnostics and drug treatments for dogs. But the founders say because of DNA similarities between canines and humans, this type of research could lead to scientific breakthroughs for people. 

Though Embark was founded in July, the company chose Austin's South by Southwest Interactive festival as its official "launch," with a Tuesday morning panel serving as an introduction to its dog DNA tests.  The test will be available this spring, said CEO Ryan Boyko. The company has not settled on a final price, he said. 

Though there are other dog DNA tests on the market, Ryan Boyko said that Embark's will be more comprehensive, with more than 200,000 genetic markers. A company news release also says Embark will offer an ancestry analysis as well as an "extensive overview" of both genetic disease risk and heritable traits. 

Embark wouldn't say if it will offer breed analysis, which is a popular product offered by other dog DNA testing companies. But breed tests have been controversial, with several media articles and veterinarians questioning their accuracy when different companies product different results for the same dog. 


Why launch in Austin?

Embark is headquartered in Austin at Capital Factory's offices downtown and employs eight people. Much of the company's research and development and product launch is being funded with a $1.6 million seed-round investment. The two lead investors are San Francisco-based Slow Ventures and Los Angeles-based Aspiration Growth Fund.

When the founders weighed which city to move the company to, they looked into cities such as Boston, San Diego and San Francisco. Austin rose to the top because it's a great town for tech start-ups, said Ryan Boyko.

And the founders were looking for something special in their headquarters city: a dog-friendly town. "It's the biggest no-kill city in the U.S.," Ryan Boyko said, saying it was hard not to miss all the dogs on Lady Bird Lake on the weekend.

The executive team consists of Ryan Boyko and his brother Adam Boyko, who have spent more than a decade researching dogs, discovering that the origin of domestic dogs was near Central Asia 15,000 years ago. 

Ryan Boyko did some of this research while he was an independent researcher at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine, and Adam Boyko is currently on the faculty at Cornell. 

Embark was borne out of a life sciences incubator there.  (Adam Boyko, the chief science officer, will remain in Ithaca, where Cornell is located.)

The company has two other co-founders: Spencer Wells, the chief product officer, directed the Genographic Project at the National Geographic Society, which collected and analyzed DNA samples from people all over the world in order to determine how humans first populated the planet; and Matt Salzberg created Blue Apron, which a meal delivery company. Salzberg is also an investor with Aspiration Growth Fund.


Testing and research

Embark hopes to become the 23andMe of the dog world. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company is famous for creating a saliva-based DNA test for people that can determine ancestry, help clients connect with relatives and tell inform people about diseases or conditions they are at higher risk for. Embark wants to do the same - but for dogs. 

Much like 23andMe, Embark has dual goals: to help pet owners better understand their dog's health and risk for certain heritable diseases, and to advance canine DNA research. 

Ryan Boyko said the company will test for certain traits and over 100 disease and health conditions. "We try to focus on ones that are preventable or at least, if you know in advance, you can reduce the severity," he said. 

Some of the benefits of genetic testing go beyond learning about a dog's propensity to get a certain disease. For instance, a dog's DNA even tell you what their "genetic size" should be, alerting owners to when your dog is overweight. "Seventy-two percent of dogs in America are obese or overweight," he said. But only 14 percent of pet owners say they their dog is overweight, he said. A DNA-based test settles what the ideal weight should be. 

Dog owners who submit their pet's saliva can opt out of having their dog's DNA used for research. But Embark wants to encourage pet owners to let their dog's DNA be used in aggregate because it can lead to scientific breakthroughs. 

Ryan Boyko said the company plans to share its dog DNA database with researchers. 

Though the company's primary mission is to help dogs, Adam Boyko said there is a human interest in studying dog DNA. 

Adam Boyko said dogs are "more genetically similar to humans than mice," and we share many of the same genes. "Sometimes dogs and humans have mutations in the same gene," he said. 

This makes dogs great for "translational research," making connections between what human genetic markers correlate to certain diseases, which can be used to develop gene-based treatments. 

For example, Adam Boyko said,one of the first genetic disorders mapped in dogs was narcolepsy in Doberman pinschers. Geneticists found a genetic mutation that caused this, and looked at human DNA and found the same mutation. That discovery could lead to breakthrough gene therapy treatment for narcolepsy. 

"We're really interested in complex disorders," Adam Boyko said. "A lot of the things dogs die of match the things people die of."


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