The parent company of FamilyTreeDNA merged in early 2021 with Australian genetic testing company myDNA.
What does this mean for FamilyTreeDNA customers? Will the genealogy services be enhanced or left behind? This article takes a close look at the future direction for the family research division of the merged company.
Who Owns FamilyTreeDNA?
The FamilyTreeDNA brand is owned by myDNA, a genetic testing company based in Australia. myDNA and Gene By Gene, the parent company of FamilyTreeDNA, agreed to merge in January 2021.
Dr. Lior Rauchberger, the CEO of myDNA, became overall chairman of the expanded company. Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, two of the founders of FamilyTreeDNA, joined the new Board of Directors.
Although both companies were in the genomics space, MyDNA had never offered genealogical services. In contrast, FamilyTreeDNA is best known for the use of DNA tests to research family history and ethnic ancestry.
However, Gene By Gene had other divisions besides FamilyTreeDNA. These include genetic health diagnostic tests, which have some overlap with myDNA products.
Like many FamilyTreeDNA customers, I’m interested in whether myDNA wants to invest in a new business division or if they were more interested in acquiring Gene By Gene’s other products.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the original owners of FamilyTreeDNA.
Who Owned Gene By Gene (FamilyTreeDNA) Before The Merger?
In 1997, entrepreneurs Bennet Greenspan and Max Blankfeld founded a website for prospective college students. GoCollege.com was an innovative internet platform with one of the first search engines for student grants and scholarships.
Greenspan was also a genealogy hobbyist with some brick walls in his family tree. He was inspired by documentaries on DNA tests and set out to see if he could use Y-DNA to help his research. However, no company was offering Y-DNA tests to consumers.
Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld recruited a computer whizz named Jim Warren to join them in a new endeavor. The three men co-founded Gene By Gene and the FamilyTreeDNA brand to provide consumer Y-DNA tests in 2000.
Jim Warren wrote the first algorithms to process the DNA results. Unfortunately, he died in 2003. The engineer’s first marriage was to Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, with whom he had two children.
FamilyTreeDNA’s New DNA Lab
Although FamilyTreeDNA is the brand name for the testing service, the name of the company was Gene By Gene. Testing was initially provided by the research labs at the University of Arizona. Eventually, FamilyTreeDNA outgrew the facilities.
The company set up a dedicated DNA testing lab in Houston, the Genomic Research Center. Consumer DNA tests for genealogy were growing, but the company could now expand its genetic services into other areas.
The company spun off three more services alongside FamilyTreeDNA. Two of the services were whole genome sequencing and certified tests for paternity and siblingship.
The other service, “DNA Traits”, is what I had in mind when I mentioned overlap with the future partners of myDNA. The “DNA Traits” service provide diagnostic testing for genetic disorders and inheritable conditions.
Now let’s take a look at myDNA, which started in health genetics.
Who Owns myDNA?
myDNA was founded by father and son Les and Allan Sheffield in 2007. Les Sheffield was a clinical geneticist developing tests for hospitals. Allan was working in the technology services field. They established myDNA in Australia to provide personalized medicine based on genetic testing.
Radek Sali is a minority owner of myDNA. Sali is a former CEO of Swisse, a major company in the vitamins market. Sali walked away with 250 million Australian dollars when Swisse sold for 1.6 billion Australian dollars in 2015.
When myDNA launched a $10m Series A funding round, Sali’s investment company took the lead. He has also taken a seat on the board of the genetics firm.
I’m going to take a quick detour into the history of another short-lived Australian DNA testing company. Don’t worry, the relevance will become very clear.
MyGene had a similar name but was not legally affiliated with myDNA. It was also involved in DNA testing for health purposes.
In 2010, MyGene devised a weight loss product that was supposedly tailored to the customer’s DNA. They arranged the sale of DNA tests through 15 Australian pharmacies. The DNA results would recommend meal-substitute diet shakes supplied to the pharmacies by MyGene.
MyGene cited various research studies to back up their claims of DNA-targeted weight loss. A growing number of experts pointed out that the research wasn’t relevant to their claims. The pharmacists also took flak for promoting dodgy diet products.
The company withdrew the product from the market in 2012 and went into voluntary administration.
MyGene and myDNA – Not Just Similar Names
So, what has this got to do with myDNA?
Les Sheffield, founder of myDNA, joined MyGene’s scientific advisory board in the same year that they rolled out their DNA diet product.
And despite the controversy surrounding MyGene, Sheffield’s company would follow a path that looks rather similar.
myDNA Test Controversy
In 2016, myDNA partnered with an Australian chain of pharmacies to sell its DNA tests. The business model involved Chemmart pharmacists taking a cheek swab from their customers and sent it to the myDNA labs for DNA analysis.
When the analysis was sent back to the pharmacists, they would sit down with customers for a consultation.
The marketing material said that the tests identified the best medication for each individual. This was the bold claim:
70% of people who take a myDNA test have a finding that could affect current or future medications.The leaflet is shown in this article from The Conversation
Once again, several experts questioned these claims and noted that clinical research didn’t back them up. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) stepped in. This is the national regulatory body and is not to be messed with.
Dropping the ban hammer
This was part of the ACCC press release after they had investigated the matter.
The ACCC was concerned that statements in Chemmart’s [marketing] materials about the myDNA test risked conveying a false or misleading impression regarding the usefulness of the genetic test, and the consumers for whom it may be appropriate.ACCC press release
And the outcome? Let’s hear from the ACCC about the actions they “persuaded” Chemmart to take.
Chemmart withdrew all of the promotional materials containing the statements of concern to the ACCC following contact by the ACCC.ACCC press release
But wait, there’s more.
Chemmart also agreed to refrain from making any statements in the future about the myDNA test that have the potential to mislead consumers about the applicability and effectiveness of the test.ACCC press release
Let’s Be Fair To myDNA
I accept that Chemmart, not myDNA, wrote the offending copy. But surely their marketing team didn’t pull the figures out of thin air? Well, perhaps they did.
But it would be surprising if the material wasn’t approved by the scientists at myDNA.
myDNA Moves Into Nutrition Genetics
I mentioned that the origins of myDNA were in DNA tests for health predictions. However, they have since shifted into nutrition and weight loss.
The company sells a DNA kit for about $100 that will “personalize your food and lifestyle choices”. You get an app for your phone that shows you menus and recipes for healthy eating and weight loss – according to your DNA analysis (apparently).
This time, myDNA doesn’t seem to be using the same marketing team as Chemmart. There are precious few statistics in their rather modest claims.
Instead, they roll out Sharon. Who, you ask? This is straight from their website (the UK version):
Sharon has struggled keeping weight off with various diets since having children. She recently completed and found out the results of her myDNA Personalised Nutrition Report. Find out how she found the experience and how she now leads a more happier life.myDNA website
Look, I’m sure their nutrition reports contain carefully designed recipes and menus that are super healthy. But you can get cell phone apps that do similar for free.
And I ask myself – is there any industry more open to charlatans than the weight loss game?
Is myDNA Interested In Genealogy?
The marketing material for the myDNA test has this to say:
myDNA does not include ancestry or genealogy information as there are no actionable findings or recommendations relating to health and lifestyle.myDNA website
Their range of DNA tests is squarely aimed at consumer health, nutrition, and weight loss. Until 2021, there was no sign they had any interest in genealogy or ancestry.
Now, with this purchase of Gene By Gene, they’ve immediately extended their range to include a diverse range of genetic genealogy tests.
I’ll point out that FamilyTreeDNA has a far bigger range of DNA tests than rivals AncestryDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage. The others only provide autosomal DNA tests (the family-finder and ethnicity tests). In contrast, FamilyTreeDNa has a mitochondrial DNA test and three different Y-DNA tests.
Ideal scenario for genealogy hobbyists
The ideal scenario is that myDNA pumps funds into their new line of business.
Personally, I’d like to see major improvements to FamilyTreeDNA’s tree software and their DNA relatives display.
I wrote an article comparing and ranking all the major DNA websites (from an Irish angle). I’ll reproduce the match features list below.
- Filter by “Has Tree” refers to the ability to filter DNA matches to those with a family tree on the website
- Filter on Ancestor Location & Surname refers to filtering DNA matches by names and places in trees
- Filter on Match Residence refers to filtering DNA matches by where the account holder resides
- Filter by Match Ethnicities refers to filtering DNA matches by ethnic regions
- Family Tree Editor refers to an interface for creating and editing a family tree
- Access to Record Archives refers to searching a database of genealogical record collections
- Speculative Trees refers to algorithms that suggest additions to your family tree
In my opinion, FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) has fallen well behind Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.
Is it reasonable to hope that there’ll be some investment in the website software? Well, that depends on why myDNA was interested in the assets of Gene By Gene.
We can hope that the Australian company is keen to diversify into genealogy and ancestry services. To date, I haven’t seen any indication of this in their marketing material.
Non-ideal scenarios (for genealogy hobbyists)
So, is there any other reason why myDNA wanted those assets? I took a look at the U.S. version of their website.
Oh, boy. As well as their nutrition tests, you can also get a “skin anti-aging” DNA test. Let’s sigh and move on. One piece of marketing bumph jumped out at me.
Our laboratory is based in Melbourne, AustraliamyDNA US website FAQ
Is it fair for me to assume that Americans would prefer their DNA to be tested within their national jurisdiction? I think so. The FDA has already gone to bat for their citizens to make 23andMe straighten up and fly right.
Isn’t it a pity that myDNA doesn’t have an American-based DNA testing center? Oh, wait. They do now.
FamilyTreeDNA’s Genomic Research Center had already diversified from genealogy testing into genetic health tests. This may be the motivation behind the merger.
Of course, I’m speculating here. All we can do is keep an eye on the product range coming out of the Houston lab. If they start producing weight-loss and anti-aging DNA tests, I for one will be very disappointed.
DNA Companies And Ownership
You may be interested in our articles on other DNA testing companies:
Our article on who owns Living DNA also covers some controversy in some of the connections between the ownership group and a discredited organization.
Although GEDmatch doesn’t offer DNA kits, they accept uploads of your DNA results. We take a look at GEDmatch ownership, which changed in 2019.