If you're a sports fan or a celebrity watcher, you can be forgiven for expecting 23andMe to be a fan site about soccer megastar David Beckham. (He wears jersey #23 for his new team, the Los Angeles Galaxy.)
But 23andMe is something else entirely: the rare company that can speak with authority about its corporate DNA. For about $1,000, this new biotech startup will search your genome and create your personal genetic profile.* It takes its name from the 23 pairs of chromosomes in every human cell--and from its "genetics is about to get personal" assertion.
Perhaps you're wondering why the company isn't named 46andMe. Keep reading.
There's a lot of high-quality DNA in 23andMe's executive team. Co-founder Anne Wojcicki (pronounced wo-JIT-skee), a former health care analyst, married Google co-founder Sergey Brin in May in a secret ceremony on a private island in the Caribbean. The Brin-Wojcicki hookup had a genetic component of its own: the pair were introduced by Wojcicki's sister, now a Google vice president, who sublet her garage to Brin and his business partner, Larry Page, when they were starting Google. (Wojcicki's mother has also worked for Google, as a consultant.) Google has invested $3.9 million in 23andMe--pocket change for Brin and Page, but a big boost for the new company.
23andMe is an interesting name for a number of reasons. Let's start with the most salient: It's distinctive. Unlike a lot of new business names, it's not a meaningless coined word with some superfluous vowels (Orgoo, Squidoo, Meebo, etc.). It doesn't go steroidal with the overused -ster suffix (Friendster, Talkster, Dogster, Napster) or coyly drop a vowel (Flickr, Shifd, Wrickr, Pluggd). It doesn't have the contorted, constructed quality of many genomics firms: BioGenix, Cytomix, DigiGenomics, Xencor, Hypromatrix. Finally, it bucks the dominant "shorter is better" philosophy and dares to be five syllables long, although with only seven characters it appears shorter than it sounds.
23andMe is not alone among recent startups in using a numeral as part of its name. But it uses the number more cannily than most. Names such as 37Signals, 83 Degrees, and Core77 are mysterious to the point of meaninglessness, while 30Boxes (a calendar site), 411Metro, and Compass360--to take just three examples--are transparently obvious.
23andMe's name, however, is justifiable yet slightly enigmatic. The 23 "story" makes sense and reinforces the serious science behind the endeavor. Meanwhile, the rhyme between "three" and "me" adds a touch of lyrical whimsy while acting as a mnemonic device.
The more I thought about this name, the more it appealed to me. There was something about the number 23--something I couldn't quite identify--that made the name stand out. So I did some research and discovered that "23" is a number with a lot of stories to tell.
- Twenty-three is, of course, a prime number, divisible only by itself and by 1.
- It's the smallest prime number that isn't a twin prime.
- According to Wikipedia, "Twenty-three is also the fifth factorial prime, the second Woodall prime, and the second Smarandache-Wellin prime. It is an Eisenstein prime with no imaginary part and real part of the form 3n − 1."
- Avogadro's number, used in chemistry, is 6.0221367×1023.
- In Biblical Palestine, the Sanhedrin had 23 judges.
- In the absurdist, chaos-centered religion called Discordianism (sometimes called "Zen for roundeyes"), all events are connected to the number 23. The digits of "23" add up to 5, which also has special properties to Discordians. (There seems to be a strong whiff of selection bias in these claims.)
- In the 2007 film The Number 23, starring Jim Carrey, a man's life unravels after he reads a book titled "The Number 23."
- Twenty-three was basketball star Michael Jordan's number when he played for the Chicago Bulls. It has since been retired.
- According to an information-sharing company called simply 23--not as effective a name, in my opinion, as 23andMe--you need at least 23 people in a room for there to be a probability of 50% or greater that two of them will share a birthday.
- And 23 has many other associations.
Many numbers come down to us with purportedly magical qualities: three wishes, seven wonders of the world, forty days and forty nights. Twenty-three, though, is quirkier and rougher around the edges, less obvious and therefore more intriguing. It doesn't disclose its meaning at a glance: it draws you in and invites you to investigate further. Substituting "46" for "23" for reasons of scientific accuracy wouldn't have achieved the same numerical/associational magic.
Then there's the "...andMe" component of the name, which warms and humanizes it--and which is why I think 23andMe is a better name than simply 23. I also like that the company chose not to make the name possessive--for example, "My23"--which would have altered the relationship between "me" and "my DNA," which in "23andMe" sounds like an equal partnership.
Even if it had a terrible name, 23andMe would draw attention because of its lucky parentage. The interesting qualities of "23andMe" give it even more credibility. In other words, 23andMe represents the optimal blend of nature and nurture.