Esther Dyson: angel investor, health nut

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When angel investor Esther Dyson was in Russia, training for a private space flight, she was struck by how rigorously we track the health of astronauts. In the earthbound world, of course, it’s only sick among us who accrue detailed medical records.

“I came back, and I thought: Let’s genoytpe all the astronauts,” recalls Dyson, who sits on the board of the Silicon Valley personal genomics company 23andMe. Exploring the genetic makeup of an unusually healthy population seemed like an irresistible research opportunity.

But when Dyson floated her idea in front of a NASA advisory council, she encountered slowly shaking heads. It turns out astronauts, if atypically healthy, are chronically worried about their medical records: The smallest blip on a test result, they fear, could prevent them from flying.

“What they should realize is that [the point of the genotyping would be] to find something wrong in the other guys,” Dyson laments. “But I did, of all things, end up joining the NASA advisory council myself, and it was a great experience.”

It’s no coincidence that Dyson “ends up” on advisory councils and in speaking positions. She’s widely acclaimed for her pedigree (her father is the famed physicist Freeman Dyson), her investments in IT, health and private aviation, and for her spoken and written ideas, which – regardless of the field – seem to cluster around the promise of data.

We’re excited to welcome Dyson as a Medicine X 2012 keynote speaker, and we hope you’ll have the opportunity to join her at the end of September on the Stanford campus. In the meantime, here’s is a lightly edited excerpt from a recent conversation:

Your dad is a famous physicist and your mom is a mathematician. What got you interested in health?

It seemed to me to be the last big unsolved problem – along with education, actually. It’s clear the biggest problem is health itself; it’s not healthcare. So that’s what I’m most interested in: How do you actually get people to be healthy? We don’t need to fix healthcare if we don’t need that much of it.

(Although she didn’t mention it here, Dyson also has four sisters who practice medicine.)

You’re on the boards of both Rock Health and Blueprint Health, seed accelerators that seem to have slightly different approaches to achieving that goal – getting people to lead healthier lives. Do you see a consumer or an institutional approach as being more promising than the other?

They are different, but the world is bigger than a single incubator. And the world needs both of them. I wouldn’t say they have a different vision of the world; they just have a different vision of where they can be most helpful.

The quality of the individual company matters more than the sector. It’s just like, I invest in Russian companies; I don’t invest in Russia. I would invest both in consumer health stuff and institutional health stuff. I think good companies with both approaches will do well.

As an angel investor, you listen to a lot of pitches. What excites you?

Things that don’t seem to be redundant. Things that wouldn’t exist without me, ideally. Where I can be useful, and where I like the people. Things I don’t like: cheesy pseudo-foods that are supposed to be healthy. It’s great: I still get a lot of, “I’m going to help white men shoot videos.” And I just say, “I’m sorry, I’m focused on health.”

Are there any ehealth companies that you think are going to be especially successful in the coming years?

Ideally, all the ones I’m invested in.

What attributes do you think would make them likely to succeed?

It sounds pretty boring and vague, but: good management. That’s really what it is. Focus; persistence; avoiding distractions. I think strategy is overrated versus actually just doing the job right; actually delivering the product; supporting it well; providing a service people want.

So, for instance, what’s working well at 23andMe?

They’re providing information that’s unique and exciting to people. Our challenge is not to over promise. Because it is really interesting information, but I would say many of our users are almost benefactors. They contribute to research and then years from now, we’ll know so much more about the genome, and that will be exciting.

And what’s the benefit to people who are using the service now?

Personally, I have a variation that means I’m 14 percent likely to get Alzheimer’s. [That's double the average.] That’s not specifically useful, but I think it’s interesting to know. And it makes me want to make sure that I get enough exercise. Whatever disease you might have or might not get, you’re obviously going to be in much better shape to handle it if you’re healthy.

Do you think that type of information really influences the way most people behave?

Not that much. I’m kind of a health nut anyway. The reality is, I already know I’m 100 percent likely to die; anything else is just details. And I think people get way over-excited about all this stuff. But from my perspective, it’s interesting to know. If I go up in space, then the chance of me dying of Alzheimer’s is probably going to be less, because… It’s all about tradeoffs. I’m trying to get people to think more intelligently and rationally about these things.

You’ve said recently that you’re not so concerned by the high level of dropout among consumers of self-tracking and other mobile health apps. Do you still have the attitude that you should just pay attention to the 20 percent of consumers who do keep using the app?

Well, yes it is going to happen. I would hope [the number of people who continue using the product] is going to be more than 20 percent.

And what changes could encourage that?

More engaging apps. More friends using them. More, various kinds of motivations and incentives. You know, they’re getting better. It’s not happening overnight, and it won’t. But I want to change social norms.

Do you think that we’re suffering from gadget exhaustion?

Personally, I think people find themselves endlessly fascinating. Data about yourself: What could be more interesting? We just need to make the apps better; we need to get people more involved, and we need to help them see results.

I know you have a strong interest in Russia. What investment opportunities do you see there, or in other places outside the United States?

Well, I was just in India. And, you know, they have the same problems we do and some other problems. Compared to India and Africa, the U.S. is so well off. So I’ll invest in a commerce application in Africa or Russia, whereas I probably would not in the U.S. Because commerce is a source of development in those countries, where it doesn’t really change anything here.

How many companies are you invested in right now?

I’m not sure. If you counted them up, it would be something amazing – like 50 or something.

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

Well, one thing is I don’t drive.

Because you want to walk more, or you want to avoid the risk?

No, I just never learned. It’s not that I won’t sit in a car; I just don’t know how to drive.

What’s the most you’re capable of achieving with the work you’re doing?

Helping people to take charge of their own health, just the way they take charge of their own car maintenance. Getting people the sense that they can control it and that they can change the outcome and that they should take advantage of that.

Banner photo by eirikso; Post photo by Joi

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Showing 4 comments

  • Carolyn Thomas
    Reply

    Just wondering . . . where’s the Sharing button for these posts?

  • Sarah
    Reply

    “It’s no coincidence that Dyson “ends up” on advisory councils and in speaking positions. She’s widely acclaimed for her pedigree (her father is the famed physicist Freeman Dyson)”

    Your privilege is showing. Could you be more un-self aware and elitist? I’m surprised Esther Dyson isn’t offended by this. Please consider the message this sends to those who don’t have ‘pedigree’.

    • Julia James
      Reply

      Hi, Sarah. I’m sorry you were offended by my choice of words. I meant to use the term simply to refer to an ancestral line. But it’s my job as a writer to be aware of unintended implications; I’ll certainly be more vigilant going forward. It’s worth emphasizing here: We’re proud to be a conference that is distinctly non-elitist. We celebrate Ether Dyson for her own innumerable achievements and welcome anyone with an interest in building better health and healthcare. Thanks for the comment.

  • Kevin Barte
    Reply

    If i may ask did she ever get to genotype the astronauts or anyone with a similar health regime. It would be interesting to see what such a research would find out.

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