Paul Saarinen is one of them. He’s the CEO of Miinome, a startup featured in WIRED, Forbes and the MIT Technology Review. His company gives consumers access to their genetic information and the option of using it to receive recommendations, products and services tailored to their DNA.
PA.O: Hello Paul, thanks for your time. What intrigues you?
Paul Saarinen: There are two things that interest me: people and groups of people. Sometimes I wonder if there is something happening in our culture as we’re always trying to focus on how people are different. We tend to forget how much we actually have in common: biology.
We have a huge bit of environmental data, which I call psychographics and sociographics, but I think the next stage is the bio-space. What do we have in common with others, genetically? How can our similarities help us better understand people? I’m just curious.
PA.O: What exactly do you do for a living, and what brought you to your line of work?
Paul Saarinen: I’m very good at the early stages of movement – setting the vision, direction and initial operations for things. When I feel like the industry is plateauing, I lose interest.
I spent a good portion of the last seven years marking behavior to create segmentation and better understand individuals. I was already familiar with helping large companies better serve their social networks. I answered questions such as, “What data are we missing to better fundamentally understand human beings?”
I saw an opportunity. Is anyone doing anything with our genetic information? No, but people are definitely curious about it.
When you talk about personal genetic data, given it’s yours, you should be able to use it how you deem fit. This is just like you use data from any other source to make decisions about your life.
It is still in the early stage, and there is a lot that is misunderstood. Some people are afraid. Access to genetic information can tell you many things with varying degrees of certainty. I’m in the camp that believes it’s up to you, the individual, as to how you want to use your genetic information. It should never be forced or used against you.
PA.O: How do you anticipate free access to personal genetic information will change our culture?
Paul Saarinen: Genetic data and its interpretation has been the domain of scientists so far, not individual laymen.
Miinome will change that.
I think people will initially get caught up in percentages. Different percentages mean different things to different people. For example, a 5 percent increased chance of having a child with a certain disease is huge to some people, while to others, it is nothing. People will have to have a better understanding of how to leverage their data in context.
That’s why I am not focusing on applying genetic information to an in-depth situation. We’ve decided to not be so disease-specific. Also, marketing based off of this information is limited under FDA guidelines.
We’re providing training on recognizing traits that are more simple and consumer-specific, like things as simple as lactose intolerance. Is there a high probability that you’re lactose intolerant? If you want recommendations for different products that are lactose free, here are products that can set you on a healthier path. If your body absorbs caffeine faster, here are options for that.
We want to empower people as part of their decision-making processes. It’s about nature plus nurture. You should be able to use your genetic information to make more informed decisions.
PA.O: How do you envision this affecting the future of digital advertising and programmatic?
Paul Saarinen: No one is great at predicting the future, but here’s what I hope will happen: Individual consumers will have more control and transparency on who gets to see their information and who gets to use it. It will be a much more even playing field for them.
The customer will be in control of their recommendations and the way products and services are advertised. Programmatic will help alleviate scenarios where advertisers and marketers are wasting time on things that aren’t relevant. There will be a closer connection to their actual target audience.
It will be better for everyone if they have control over their information and how it is being used. These control systems aren’t solidly in place right now.
PA.O: How as marketers can we communicate with audiences through programmatic methods, but still be sensitive to their personal data?
Paul Saarinen: The only way is through using an opt-in system. When you get to a certain level of knowledge around an individual, they aren’t being served ads anymore, but recommendations.
What’s the difference between me telling you I’ve tried a product and liked it and an ad? If I have experience with this product and I tell you about it, am I sending you an ad? Where does the transition come from?
PA.O: That’s a good question. Paul, where do you actually draw the line?
Paul Saarinen: I think it’s going to be a cultural shift. There is going to be some tipping point. We will be able to start talking about native advertising with really intelligent recommendations.
PA.O: I’m just curious. Let’s say I gave Miinome my genetic data and approval for product “recommendations” – how would you communicate with me?
Paul Saarinen: We would give a product and/or service mix recommendation based on a certain number of your traits. We are experimenting with how we communicate varying levels of detail.
Currently, we are working on a cultural experiment showing people what traits they have in common through open consent, rather than showing people how they are different.
For example, let’s look at a propensity to consume more sugar.
In a general use case, we examine the implications for the use of this information on Facebook. We would take a look at a certain trait that we have in common with someone else. You can see all of your friends on Facebook who have that trait. It’s an interesting way to look at marketing. Go back to the very beginning. We sometimes become so focused on trying to figure out how people are different, we forget to find what people have in common.
We are still trying to get feedback from those early adopters to find the most valuable service.
PA.O: How does predictive analytics play into this concept of determining tendencies and then communicating them to audiences?
Paul Saarinen: It’s an evolving topic for us, but the bigger question is the consumer’s attitude around identity. What does identity mean? When we start building in data subsets like genetics, does that take over the primary information of what identity really is? When I said “identity” 20 years ago, someone would say their identity is the SSN, telephone number, driver’s license, etc. When you ask today, I argue that it means something completely different. It’s fluid. It changes. It’s such a moving target. There are tons of studies out there on how people perceive themselves.
Some say we are in an oversharing generation where people are willing to tell more information about themselves. However, we’re dealing with two different issues: the moving targets of what identity and privacy mean. Are we living in a society where privacy would be a “nice to have” but unrealistic?
PA.O: Paul, if you advocate for asking consumer permission, how do you believe “privacy” no longer exists?
Paul Saarinen: We are in a really interesting spot in history where everything is considered “de-identified.” The people contained in these data sets do not have to be explicitly identified as individuals. I think it’s been proven over and over again through compiling data sets that you can get a high chance of being able to guess who an individual is even without all variables. It’s difficult to be able to promise full anonymity anymore. It is getting more difficult, and we have to become used to that. For example, if you want anonymity, never use email. I don’t think that’s realistic anymore. Over and over again we see convenience trumps privacy. Sometimes security and privacy are not as important to people as convenience.
PA.O: What might be the biggest growth area for digital advertising?
Paul Saarinen: I would say the concern is how to put content on a one-to-one level for all. Thinking of how to communicate to 1,000 people in 1,000 different ways is nearly impossible. How do you have 1,000 different messages without having it look like a template? How can you avoid being cost prohibitive? It’s a challenge. If you want to focus on text-based regular messaging with better machine learning and linguistics, perhaps it’s possible. But from an image or video standpoint, we are far from doing anything that compelling. The closest we are to that are personalized videos on your Facebook profile or Vine, where marketers spit your own content back at you.