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TGG Interview Series VIII – Max Blankfeld

image The eighth edition of the TGG Interview Series is with Max Blankfeld.  Max is Vice-President of Marketing and Operations at Family Tree DNA, one of the largest genetic genealogy companies in the world.  In addition, together with Bennett Greenspan, Max launched DNA Traits, a company that tests DNA for genetic diseases and inherited conditions.  Max is a frequent contributor to genetic genealogy mailing lists and has answered many people’s questions about testing, results, an the field in general.

From the “About” page at Family Tree DNA:

“Originally from Brazil, received his BBA from Fundação Getulio Vargas, and MBA from Rice University. While his first college education was in the field of Aeronautical Engineering, he gave it up to become a foreign correspondent. After that, he started and managed several successful ventures in the area of public relations as well as consumer goods both in Brazil and the US.”

In the following interview, Max discusses his lengthy roots with genetic genealogy, the launch of DNA Traits, and the future of genetic genealogy.

TGG: How long have you been actively involved in genetic genealogy, and how did you become interested in the field?  Have you undergone genetic genealogy testing yourself?  Were you surprised with the results?  Did the results help you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?

Max Blankfeld: I was introduced to the concept of genetic genealogy at the very beginning when Bennett was talking about doing the “proof of concept” with Mike Hammer at the University of Arizona, even before the name Family Tree DNA had been registered. This was in 1999, and since I have the habit of not trashing my emails, I still have our exchanges on the subject dated from 1999.

I certainly did test, in 2000, and while the results did not surprise me, it helped find and confirm distant relationships, and also gave me very close matches with people that I was not aware of.

So here’s my DNA break through: in 1983, when I was still in Brazil, our family received a letter from a Blankfield living in Australia, where he gave us some of his genealogy and asked if we could possibly be related. The problem was that my father passed away in 1981, and never discussed very much his family with me because he was a Holocaust survivor, and both parents and sisters were murdered by the Nazis in 1942. So, I didn’t have any facts to check against that letter. I kept the letter in the drawer. Fast forward to the year 2000, and the start of genetic genealogy. I start looking for Blank(en)f(i)elds to be test. Saul Isseroff, an avid genealogist  from England tells me that he’s related to some Blankfields in South Africa, and gives me the name of a female Blankfield. She convinces her father to be tested. High expectations. Results come in and bingo – very close match. I ask for their family tree and guess what – that man from Australia is in that tree! We put together both trees, and it looks like we shared the same great-great-great-great-grandfather! (I must say that I had a previous attempt with another Blankfield that did not show a relationship)

TGG:  Is there any concern that people with little experience in the area of genetic genealogy will confuse ancestry testing with personal genomics services, especially in light of all the recent negative press about personal genomics?

MB: Certainly. That is why our first priority has always been to educate before selling. I remember that the first trade-shows that Bennett and I went, we never took kits to sell, and our entire approach was just to make people aware of genetic genealogy and how they could use it. With time, people started coming to our booth and ask if we brought kits to test them.

As a former journalist I can tell you that negative press will always be there, no matter what area of business one is in. Unfortunately, many journalists write about topics that they are not experts, and this leads to negative press or some absurd and totally wrong statements (I have good stories from my times as a foreign correspondent, but I will leave this to a different forum).

Educating is the key. Not just the customer, but also the press. We spend hours on the phone with journalists from all over the United States and abroad, in very detailed conversations so that they can understand the subject. In fact, our favorite thing is to educate people about it and we do not measure the time we spend on the phone for this purpose.

TGG: You recently launched DNATraits together with Mr. Greenspan.  Could you tell us a little bit about the new company and what it offers?

MB: This is a field that we were reluctant to get in, as genealogists normally don’t like to mix genealogy and health information. However, we noticed that over the years more and more people approached us on the subject of genetic diseases or inherited conditions. This lead us to form a separate entity for this specific purpose, where we use totally different test kits, absolutely unrelated to Family Tree DNA tests and stored DNA. It is currently offering Mendelian tests for several inherited diseases, and we will be adding more tests every few months. We want to change the paradigm in this field, allowing people to get tested for substantially less than what the current market price is. We want for DNATraits to make a difference in this area, and by being very affordable, allow the widest number of people to get tested so that the quantity of people with inherited diseases can be reduced.

TGG: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?

MB: It may not grow at the rate that we have seen it growing in the past years, but it will still grow, and also, with the team of scientists that Family Tree DNA has, we will keep seeing additional discoveries, and offering additional tests that can help further one’s genealogical research. And, as we integrate additional features in the future, more tools that embed more traditional genealogy along with the results of DNA testing, Family Tree DNA will continue being positioned as the leader, as the most complete and scientifically accurate company in the market – and of course, with the largest database – which is a key element in this field.

TGG:  Thank you Max for a great interview!

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

2 Comments

  1. I never knew anything about Genetic Geneology or dna testing. I’m finding your blog fascinating stuff. Keep up the diary entries

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