With dedicated libraries and sprawling online communities, genealogy is a favorite pastime of many. But what if your family tree could also be used to improve your health, along with that of your loved ones?
TapGenes, a Chicago-based healthtech startup, has set out to make that possible.
“Oftentimes, what people find out is that they focus so much on one or two traits that they forget about other conditions that they could potentially be at risk for,” said founder and CEO Heather Holmes.
TapGenes uses informal quizzes to gather the most important information about your family's health. Based on your answers, the app will start building a family tree with custom icons representing specific traits or conditions so you can see how traits are passed down through generations.
Once the initial tree is set up, TapGenes encourages users to invite family members who can expand on it or fill in the gaps. Holmes said the average user brings between 13 and 17 family members onto the platform.
“For each person taking these similar assessments, we’re getting much better data about the family’s health risks,” she said.
Based on the information the family gathers, TapGenes provides users with individualized advice about the health risks they face and preventative steps they can take.
Holmes said the idea for TapGenes came about from trends she observed while working in the healthcare industry. When diagnosed with conditions that have hereditary components, many patients would not let their family know to get tested — either because they didn’t know that the condition runs in the family, or because there was no simple way to inform family members.
The TapGenes team originally thought that the app could provide people with a way to exchange information online, rather than have uncomfortable in-person conversations. What it found while user-testing the app, however, was that users would call family members to find answers to questions that came up.
“People wanted to talk,” Holmes said. “They just needed a starting point for doing it that wasn’t a moment of crisis.”
Family trees are accessible on an invitation-only basis, and TapGenes does not allow users to merge separate trees with each other. Holmes said these security measures were put in place to ensure that users don’t accidentally share their health information more broadly than they intended.
Privacy settings can also be managed on a per-person basis. Upon joining the platform, a user can claim their own node on the tree and decide what information they want to share or withhold. Given that option, Holmes said 96 percent of users still opt to share their entire health profile with family members.
TapGenes gets its revenue from premium memberships, which are required to import external genome data. Premium memberships also unlock a “medical vault” feature that lets users store important medical information to be accessed in the case of medical emergencies.
Holmes’ co-founder and CTO Emily Chang holds a postdoc in genetics from Stanford University and has previously worked for 23andMe. Along with product manager Ashley Flitter, who has been with the company since the beginning, the pair have also recently spun off a fintech startup, Genivity, that uses the same kinds of genetic information to help families plan for healthcare costs in retirement.
To date, the company has only raised funding from friends and family, but Holmes said she is open to outside investment if they find a potential partner who understands the space TapGenes operates in.
“We’re really picky about who we work with,” she said.
Image via TapGenes.