This article explains the current ownership of Promethease.
Then we give a quick history of Promethease, SNPedia, and what happened when the founders sold to new owners.
Who Owns Promethease?
Promethease is owned by MyHeritage, a company that provides genealogy services and DNA tests.
The Israel-based company purchased Promethease and the SNPedia website in 2019 from founders Greg Lennon and Mike Cariaso.
MyHeritage was purchased in 2021 by Francisco Partners, a U.S. investment firm.
MyHeritage is still operated as a private company with headquarters in Israel. You can read more in our article on the ownership of MyHeritage.
It’s fair to summarize the situation as this: Promethease is owned by MyHeritage, which in turn is owned by Francisco Partners.
Now that we’ve looked at the current situation, let’s go back to the start. How did Promethease first come about?
Human Genome Project
The history of Promethease starts in the 1990s with the Human Genome Project.
The HGP was an international research project that started in 1990 and ran until 2003. The goal was to map the entire human genome.
The project pulled together several thousand geneticists and other researchers.
Dr. Greg Lennon, Co-Founder Of Promethease
One of these geneticists is Dr. Greg Lennon, who started working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
One of Lennon’s major contributions to the Human Genome Project was an innovative technology that increased the speed of collecting and distributing DNA samples.
Mike Cariaso, Co-Founder Of Promethease
Mike Cariaso is a computer engineer who worked in the 1990s on the processing of massive amounts of biodata.
Cariaso met Lennon through the Human Genome Project. The two men collaborated on tools and software for bio-analysis.
River Road Bio LLC
Cariaso and Lennon co-founded River Road Bio as a limited liability company.
Their goal was to study their own DNA.
Kevin Davies’ book on genome sequencing has an amusing account from Cariaso as to how they got started.
Cariaso wandered around the suburbs of Washington DC looking for someone to draw his blood sample. He persuaded a paramedic he found outside a fire station.
Just as the helpful guy was doing the deed, “the fire engine alarm goes off, the whole station empties out”.
Cariaso jumped out of the paramedic’s ambulance with a vial of blood just before it hared off to the crisis.
You may be wondering why he hadn’t just ordered a 23andMe kit and spat into the vial. Well, 23andMe was only founded in the same year.
Instead, Cariaso sent his sample to Affymetrix, a company that was a market leader in consumer DNA analysis.
Launch Of SNPedia In 2006
Once Cariaso received the breakdown of his DNA results, he and Lennon had the onerous job of researching each genetic marker.
These markers are called Single Nucleotide Polymorphism? That’s a mouthful, so it’s shortened to SNPs (and pronounced as snips).
They set out to compile a massive resource of online scientific papers that mentioned or targeted specific SNPs.
The online resource became SNPedia.
Cariaso then started automating the search for relevant material to add to this resource.
This is achieved by creating a computer program that crawls web pages through their links and searches for specific pieces of text.
This is what Google’s crawl bots do when they index all the world’s web content.
Thankfully, Cariaso didn’t have to deal with every website in the world! His bots crawl and trawl through websites that publish clinical research papers.
Promethease Before 2019
Now that Lennon and Cariaso had created SNPedia website, Cariaso set out to automate the comparison of his DNA results with the wealth of information on the SNPedia website.
Soon, he had a version of the software that was ready for public use.
Promethease started as desktop software that users could download for free and install on their local machine. It would connect to the online SNPedia website but use the desktop machine to power the processing.
The first version ran on Windows and was later ported to Apple Macs and Linux machines.
Intrepid early users opened their raw DNA files with the application and then…waited. And waited some more. It could take up to sixteen hours for the analysis to complete.
Eventually, Cariaso moved the software to run online with an authenticated login.
The current online implementation takes less than ten minutes to run through a typical consumer DNA file.
Desktop version is discontinued
The desktop version is no longer available, and old versions aren’t supported.
For a while, it was more expensive to run the desktop version of the software than use the online version.
Cariaso was clear that they wanted to dissuade usage of the desktop software. It had become both cumbersome and expensive to keep the software up to date with Windows and Mac upgrades.
This is the great advantage of online software – you only have to change one version!
How much did it cost?
For many years, using Promethease to get a report cost five dollars.
Several competitors provided less information but charged a lot more.
However, Promethease has never been very user-friendly. Some people preferred the more carefully laid out reports of other services.
MyHeritage Buys Promethease In 2019
MyHeritage announced its purchase of Promethease in September 2019.
The company made access to reports free for the few months until the end of 2019. They then restored the same price of $12.
It’s fair to say that the buyout was a bit of a mess in terms of customer relations.
Issues arose over what would happen to the DNA results and data of existing Promethease customers.
The ideal scenario for MyHeritage is that they would have an overnight gain of a whole new set of DNA tests copied from Promethease into their relative-matching database.
All these new customers would instantly have accounts on the MyHeritage website. And they would happily rush to buy the extra services offered by the genealogy service provider.
What could go wrong?
Europe and data protection
Unfortunately for MyHeritage, the European Union had recently rolled out strong new protection for their citizens and personal data. This is known as GDPR.
Promethease customers had signed up for health reports from a specific provider. They hadn’t given consent for their data to be transferred to the purchasing company to be used for other purposes.
The European protection laws ensured that MyHeritage had to get explicit consent from EU citizens for their data to be sold from one entity to another.
Customers outside Europe
The vast majority of Promethease users were from the United States.
The United States also has consumer protection laws in the area of company purchases. But they don’t seem to be as strong as in the EU.
Customers received this message from MyHeritage.
On November 1, 2019, DNA files of non-European users that were uploaded to Promethease previously…will be copied to the MyHeritage website…in new accounts created for Promethease users.
According to our records, you have DNA data stored on Promethease and you seem to reside outside of the European Union, therefore you will be included.
In other words, this was an opt-out situation.
If “non-European” customers did nothing, their DNA data would be copied to MyHeritage.
If they weren’t happy about this, they had to explicitly log into Promethease within the next few months (before November) and delete their DNA from the site.
Opting in or out
Some customers were annoyed about the opt-out position. They knew that they weren’t getting the same treatment as their European counterparts.
They expressed their dissatisfaction on genealogy forums like Reddit.
And other customers were even angrier. Unfortunately, not every customer saw the email from MyHeritage.
This could be due to several reasons that were not in the company’s control. I’m sure that some of the emails went straight into spam folders.
To cap it all, some of these customers first realized their DNA data was on the MyHeritage website when they received marketing emails from the company. These customers also expressed their frustration on the genealogy forums.
This situation would have been avoided if MyHeritage had adopted an opt-in policy for every customer.