How Is a Good Insight Like a Patent?

how-is-a-good-insight-like-a-patentI got interested in genetic testing for fitness a while back, but haven’t pulled the trigger on anything yet (besides 23 and Me, a few years ago before they got their hands slapped by the FDA). There’s a part of me that imagines a dream future where a simple genetic test can unlock my ideal diet and exercise regimens and then I follow them and become a fitness model. Yeah, I know that’s not going to happen. In the meantime, I’ve explored a couple of free or low-cost options to see how close reality might be to the dream.

My discovery so far is not very.

I tried two different services that draw from 23 and Me results and supposedly extrapolate beyond them to lifestyle recommendations. After seeing the results, I realized that a good insight–an insight people will pay money for–is a lot like a patent.

In order for an idea to qualify for a patent in the United States, it must be useful, novel, and non-obvious. The insights I got from the two services I tried were none of the above.


This report, from Athletigen, notes that I am a poor responder to dieting. Basically, I have to work hard at calorie restriction to see movement in my weight. While this is a nice validation for how frustrating I find dieting, it’s not really useful. What am I supposed to do with this information? Do I restrict calories more than I would have otherwise? Is there something I can do to change it? No information is really given that would lead to a course of action.

Huzzah–I’m diet-resistant!

Novel and Non-Obvious

Here’s part of my original 23 and Me report:

Stinks in the morning when I want to wake up, awesome at night if I want to pound espressos before bed.

I’m a fast caffeine metabolizer. Basically, coffee doesn’t really perk me up. I know this from a lifetime of guzzling coffee then nodding off immediately afterward. It was kind of cool to see it confirmed at a genetic level by 23 and Me.

I was less impressed to see it surface in Athletigen’s dietary recommendations for me:

Thanks for those keen insights.

Athletigen wasn’t the only offender on the novel and non-obvious front. Another thing I knew about myself even before the 23 and Me test is that I am not lactose intolerant. I figured that out after eating a bunch of ice cream and cheese and feeling only the crushing regret of poor choices but not the stomach pains of an intolerance.

23 and Me confirmed, of course:

Please note the additional mind-blowing information that I have blue eyes and curly hair.

And then DNAFit thoughtfully included the information in my diet report, lest I somehow missed it in the 23 and Me report. (Bear in mind, both the Athletigen and the DNAFit reportsĀ come directly from the 23 and Me data. I was particularly disappointed here because I paid for this report.)

So what?

My point is not to be cranky at two companies that are likely in the early stages of making use of 3rd party genetic data to make diet and exercise recommendations. While I wasn’t wowed by the services, I also recognize that it’s early days, and I know some 23 and Me users may have overlooked the critical information in that profile related to caffeine and lactose.

My point is that if you are selling insights, there’s a fairly high bar to clear before they are worthwhile to the customer. It’s not enough to be accurate. Instead, offer insights that surprise the user and demonstrate your value beyond what a typical person could figure out on her own. Be like a good patent: useful, novel, and non-obvious.