Ahead of this week’s BT Sport Industry Awards, Sport Industry Group spoke to Avi Lasarow, CEO and founder of DNAFit, a service that brings genetic science out of the laboratory and into the hands of tens of thousands of people, and shortlisted for a second consecutive year for the Cutting Edge Sport Award in association with Sela Sport.
For the uninitiated, can you give us an overview of what DNAFit is?
DNAFit is a genetic test that effectively gives you an insight to the right way to eat for your body, an area called nutrigenomics, as well as the right way to exercise for your body, known as sportsgenomics.
How is DNAFit being received since you began in 2013? Particularly compared to the rise in other performance enhancing products such as wearable technology and bespoke training?
DNAFit has been around for just over four years now and it was around that time[four years ago] that I went to a technology tradeshow. I came off the fitness track and FitBit were along with other wearables. There was a whole big discussion around big data and Google glasses on the treadmill and how that was going to change the treadmill pace. The question at the time was ‘what would be next?’ and for me it just felt like a natural evolution that we move towards personalisation genetics.
To give you some practical examples, I love it and I can drink four or five cups of coffee a day. I could even drink an espresso before I go to sleep and be out like a light. My wife on the other hand, she’ll have half a cup of coffee and if she has it after midday she won’t be able to fall asleep! From a health point of view, you can pick up a tabloid newspaper one day saying coffee is bad for you, you shouldn’t drink it and the next day it will say coffee has all kinds of benefits. The fact is, everyone reacts differently. There have been some studies on certain genes looking at the variations of this particular gene related to caffeine metabolism - how fast you metabolise coffee. I’m a fast metaboliser of coffee, so it makes sense that I can drink a lot of it and what that means is, according to the research, the gene variation I have means more than four cups of coffee day can prevent heart disease. On the flip side, if you have the slow gene for caffeine metabolism four cups of coffee could be bad for you.
So there’s no one-size fits all rule?
Exactly, and that’s just a simple cup of coffee. The same applies across the board, like having the FTO Gene, also called the obesity gene. If you have that version of the gene then certain foods and carbohydrates might have a different effect to you then could to me for example, and that just completely surmises the fact that there’s no such thing as a one size fits all approach. That’s on a basic level when it comes to nutrition, so you can apply that to other areas too. Take medicine for example, blood clots and the way you metabolise warfarin has to be measured by a doctor over consecutive visits to work out the right dosage for you, and its exactly the same when it comes to exercise. I was on a mission and I wanted to prove this.
There are lots of research papers out there that from 100 sprint athletes, in almost every case, they all had a variation of the ACTN3 gene, or the ACE gene. So the next question is, does this mean you have to have that variation of the gene to become and athlete? It starts opening up all sorts of questions, so what we did was curate a panel of genes associated to performance and endurance and put them into an algorithm. From there, we ran the first ever exercise genetic intervention clinical study, which was published last year. The highlight summary of this particular panel is power and endurance, which would impact which exercises would get you the most benefit. In the study we looked at 100 people, and we put them through two sports science tests; one to test and measure explosive power, the other to measure endurance. We put people on an eight-week programme and what we found was that when they came back and did these tests, the people that were genetically matched with their exercises had a three-fold difference to the ones who didn’t. That can be the difference from a bronze to a gold, it can be the difference from no medal to a medal. From a professional sporting level that sounds amazing but of course it comes down to the consumer as well. In a consumer context, you just want to go maximise your time and make sure the workout you do is the right workout for your body.
My goal is that this gets implemented into mainstream professional sports, so we are working with a number of athletes from the Bryan Habana to Greg Rutherford to Premier League footballers. We recently partnered with the Egyptian Football Association (EFA). What we are doing is changing the way you should be looking at sports from a genetic perspective and how to get the best results with the best information up front.
Is the EFA partnership a sign of things to come? Are you specifically targeting governing bodies and other rights holders to expand?
We are working with clubs and a few governing bodies such as the EFA. In the four years we’ve been around as a company we’ve never actually proactively contacted sports people, they’ve come to us. It’s a very small industry and people move around - a doctor from one team will go to another team, or one team will hear that another team is doing something new or different, and that peaks their interest. The fact is that working with us will give a team an advantage, and there’s a global shift in the consumer space towards personalisation, proactive health monitoring.
If you go to any of the Premier League clubs at the moment, they will have a great sport science team. They understand biomechanics, they understand the environment. But DNAFit is perfect for understanding more about your youth squad or a younger athlete who wants to understand what’s right for the body from day one, instead of going season to season to then understand what works best.
We self-regulate, we have a clear code of conduct in how we operate, what the genes are, which we include, why we include them. The researchers test it out on humans not on mice, they’ve been on multiple peer review studies independently and, most importantly, it’s important to understand that genes are not everything. Genetics are not everything. It’s 50% genetics, 50% environment.
To give an example, the general consumer has never heard of Mo Farah’s twin brother who stayed in Somalia. They both have ‘the genes’ but Mo was also given the perfect environment to encapsulate and utilise the genetics, whereas his brother probably wasn’t. So that’s very important to get across. Genetics is not everything but we are getting to a point where genetics are going to become more and more a fundamental part in making sure we get to the best possible athlete or the best possible fitness goals that we can get through genetics.
So how does the process work? You sign up, a box is delivered. What’s next?
You take a mouth swab of your saliva, put that back in the box, that gets sent back to our laboratory, and within ten business days we’ll produce you a report. The report will be broken into two main sections. The first section is the nutrition side, covering what your body will respond to best in terms of macro nutrients information, and the second section is the fitness side, measuring things like your power/endurance ratio, your recovery speed of recovery, or your statistical likelihood of soft tissue injury. We’ll also look into what are your VO2 max training might be like, based on your genetics. There is no such thing as bad news; it’s all just information that you could use. What we do as a company as well which is quite unique is we have a team of sports scientists - some are ex-Olympians, some are part of our sports science team - and we arrange a one hour consultation with every user to run through the report with you. We think that it’s very important that you get the full experience, and fully understand the details of your report.
You’ve been shortlisted for a second time for the BT Sport Industry Awards, which is quite an achievement in itself. What has changed in the last 12 months between the first time you were shortlisted and this time?
I think the first time we were shortlisted we were very much big vision - this is where we are going, with a couple of scenarios in which we could prove a vision was far more than just that. This time we’ve progressed in a number of areas, including the publishing of the first ever exercise genetic intervention clinical study. This demonstrates categorically that training with our algorithm and your genetics will get significant advantages if you use this approach. Of course another success story is the EFA, as well as work outside the sport industry with companies like LinkedIn, who are now rolling out the product to all their employees globally.
One of the ways to understand innovating is to put people’s ideas into action. That’s what the difference has been, before we had ideas that had been getting momentum. Now we’ve got our ideas that have actually become real products, which have been implemented to show success and yield gains.