Former Northwestern student Anna Cornell She spoke her first English words when she was five years old to instruct children to run around the “running field”. Cornell said she was always a “very bossy little kid” with high ambitions.
In January, Cornell pulled out of NU to pursue those ambitions with its startup Acorn Genetics, a genetic testing kit that lets people learn about their genetic health in the privacy of their own home.
Cornell left NU after winning the Thiel Fellowship, which awards a stipend of $100,000 to young entrepreneurs on the condition that they drop out of college.
Nicole, Anna’s sister, said that it was not surprising that Anna got into entrepreneurship.
“She’s always been a natural leader,” said Nicole, a sophomore in high school.
Cornell genetics founded Acorn because she wanted to help those who needed genetic testing but were uncomfortable with the options currently available. When Cornell was 16, her father was diagnosed with a genetic condition. She wanted to get tested, too, but said that insurance doesn’t cover 90% of genetic testing.
Cornell said she didn’t want to pay thousands of dollars and wait so long to hear back about her genetic health. But its only other option was consumer-directed genetic testing companies. After doing research on these companies, I was concerned that their genetic information would be sold to third parties.
“I didn’t want to put my bank account or my information at risk by allowing direct-to-consumer testing companies to subsidize that high cost by selling the information,” Cornell said.
She said about 45.7 million Americans want a genetic test but avoid it due to a lack of affordable, private options. Her interest in genetics and her background in biomedical engineering, which she taught at NU, prompted her to search for a solution.
As a student at NU, Cornell said she would spend time sketching out all the ideas she wanted to turn into reality. Oak came out of a drawing that Cornell drew when she was “bored” in her second engineering analysis class at Northwestern University, she said. She was the first to introduce the genetics of acorns in her Principles of Entrepreneurship course. Cornell later joined The Garage, joining its various programs to support startups, including Propel, Jumpstart, Tinker, and Residency.
After receiving the Thiel Fellowship, Cornell said dropping out was an easy decision, especially during the pandemic. At that point, she was investing most of her time in Acorn, which was her “escape from the pandemic,” Cornell said.
Although Cornell is not currently at NU, many registered NU students go on to work with Acorn. Rishi Jin, a sophomore from Weinberg, the company’s director of research, said he joined Acorn in the fall of his freshman year because he was looking for a new way to explore his interests in biology outside of the traditional lab environment.
Jain said Acorn is getting the attention of scientists, clinicians and investors, and he’s excited about what’s to come.
“It took a lot of courage to leave Northwestern and[Cornell]let it speed it up,” Jane said.
Cornell said she learned the importance of vulnerability when building oak. For a long time, Cornell said she did not tell people about the genetic disease that runs in her family, fearing it would change their perceptions of her.
But as soon as she began to open up about the difficulties that her family experienced, she said that she gained a lot of trust from the people to whom she presented her project.
“Startups come out of pain. They come in because you have a problem or someone you love has a problem, or someone you know has a really painful problem,” Cornell said. “If you’re not so vulnerable about what that pain is, why would anyone care about something you’re trying to fix?”
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