How a DNA art startup spawned an entirely new company selling gene-based health and wellness assessments to body builders. By Lorraine Sanders (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)
For proof that the path of an entrepreneur is rarely straight, just ask Dr. Samantha Decombel. In three short years, the Oxford-based scientist has gone from working in a lab and lecturing on evolutionary and conservation genetics to launching PlayDNA, a company that turns individuals’ DNA into custom art and home décor. That shift alone would be notable enough for someone trained in a field where academia dominates, but Decombel is hard at work on yet another pivot. This time, body builders are the target. It’s a progression that’s surprising even to Decombel.
"I was very much out of my comfort zone when I first started a business," she says.
So how do you get from a lab at the UK’s University of Birmingham to creating science-inspired wall art for families to offering ultra-muscled gym nuts a peek into their genetic backgrounds?
One catalyst was death of Decombel’s father from esophageal cancer at age 57. Before he died, he gave his daughter a critical piece of advice.
"He said, 'If there’s anything you want to do, you should just go for it,'" recalls Decombel.
At about the same time, Decombel and her partner and fellow scientist, Dr. Stuart Grice, heard through a friend that companies were beginning to make art using DNA. Intrigued, they investigated, but weren’t impressed with the products they found.
"We just thought, there’s a more interesting way of doing this," she says.
The pair pooled their savings and dove into researching the company that would become PlayDNA, an ecommerce site that turns user DNA submitted using a simple cheek swab kit into wall art and rugs that are not only nice to look at, but reveal gene-based findings and personal traits. A resulting canvas might show that you’re more likely to stay up late at night, have a good long term memory or high body fat burning efficiency.
Launching sales last October, Decombel and Grice continued working on their company through the spring. Orders came in, but PlayDNA was far from a runaway success. But then something unexpected began to happen: athletes were contacting the company to ask about genetic profiles, minus the wall art.
“They were more interested in the content, so we thought that was very interesting,” Decombel says.
Decombel and Grice soon partnered with an editor at a muscle and fitness magazine and began marketing genetic profiles with personalized recommendations for nutrition and dietary supplements. They started offering profile packages through MuscleGenes this summer and, within weeks, had to stop taking new orders.
“We found that the demand was so overwhelming,” says Decombel.
With more orders than Decombel could fulfill by hand in the company’s rented lab space, MuscleGenes took center stage for the four-person team. The pivot towards fitness made sense, but it meant less time for PlayDNA, a shift that Decombel regards with mixed feelings.
“PlayDNA was my baby, and it’s very difficult to think that you’re going to put that aside to go with something [else],” she says.
At the same time:
“It would be daft to chase sales on PlayDNA and turn people away from MuscleGenes.”
Though marketing for her first company has been put on hold for the time being as the team adds new equipment to speed turnaround time and focus on health and wellness customers, Decombel continues to accept DNA art requests and is proud of the company’s impact on its clients, especially families. For one family that tapped Decombel, assessing DNA was about much more than a pretty wall. Identified as fraternal twins at birth, babies Ozzy and Ollie were impossible to distinguish – even at 18 months. The family wondered, could the doctor have made a mistake?
“Sure enough, the twins came back with exactly the same traits. We were able to prove that they were indeed identical twins,” says Decombel.
Along with solving minor mysteries, the scientist-turned-entrepreneur has her hands in nearly every aspect of her businesses. Here are a few tips for early stage startup entrepreneurs culled from her experiences:
- Prepare to be involved, really involved. "You have to become a jack of all trades," says Decombel, who works on everything from genetic profiles in the lab and web site copy to finances and human resources.
- Find your audience before you sell. Decombel recalls, "With PlayDNA, we spent a lot of time developing the perfect product, and then we went out and tried to market it." But it was much easier to sell to the market of body builders that essentially came to them looking to buy. "We did it the wrong way around the first time," she says.
- Create content that’s important to your audience. For a new company building up a customer base, Decombel recommends creating social media and blog content that is helpful and of interest to the individuals in that population.
- Be picky about who you hire. Getting the right team in place in a startup environment can be tricky. Be patient and wait for the right match, Decombel says. It will be worth it in the long run.
What are some other female founders who have pulled off impressive pivots?
About the blogger: Lorraine Sanders is a journalist, blogger and media consultant. She is the author of the San Francisco Chronicle Style Bytes column and writes regularly for FastCompany.com and others. She is founder of the blog Digital Style Digest and an inhabitant of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Connect with her on Twitter @digitalstyledig or @lorrainesanders.