Tracing Your Ancestry

Rick Kittles confesses that the motivation for starting his company was purely selfish. “Like many African Americans, I wanted to trace my ancestry. But like so many of us, I hit a brick wall.” So, the molecular biologist did something about it.

Two years ago, Kittles and his partner, Gina Paige, started Maryland-based African Ancestry. The company sells DNA-based genealogy tests, at $349 each, which can pinpoint where in Africa a client’s ancestors came from.

Clients use swabs to wipe inside their cheeks and return the DNA samples via express delivery service. African Ancestry then sends the samples to Sorensen Genomics, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based laboratory that processes them to determine their DNA genotyping and sequencing. The certified and accredited lab returns the results to Kittles, who cross-references and matches that DNA sequence with his ancestry database.

In about four to six weeks, African Ancestry validates the present-day country or region that the client shares a genetic link with and, in some cases, the ethnic group or tribe. According to African Ancestry, about 85% of clients find identical matches in their lineage database. For the remainder, the company will find closely related lineages.

The key to it all is the company’s comprehensive genetic African Lineage Database, a repository of molecular blueprints of African peoples created by Kittles. African Ancestry offers a MatriClan Test of maternal DNA inherited from the mother; and a PatriClan Test of paternal DNA inherited from the father, if you are male.

The database, which includes a compilation of published sources and research collaborations, comprises 11,747 paternal lineages and 13,690 maternal lineages from more than 389 distinct locations in Africa. Kittles says, “It took close to 10 years to collect this data. It now contains the identification, the genetic markers, of more than 200 indigenous populations.” The company then cross-references the client’s DNA with the growing database.

“It is the most comprehensive resource available on African lineages in the world,” Kittles adds. “I was doing my Ph.D. dissertation on the Finnish population [while] at George Washington University and knew I could use the same techniques and apply them to the African population. I want to reverse what I see as a sad trend that allows too many African American children to believe their family history begins with slavery.”

The company’s revenues totaled approximately $300,000 in 2004, up about 50% from a year earlier. “After the first month we were profitable,” Paige says. Their margins were helped initially because there was little overhead cost. The company originally operated out of a virtual office and continues to conduct business largely online. African Ancestry says it has helped more than 3,000 clients discover their roots–including film director Spike Lee, television host B. Smith, Congresswoman Diane E. Watson (D-Calif.), and actor Isaiah Washington.

Paige is optimistic about the company’s growth potential. “We have a whole universe of people who may be interested in this service,” she says. Paige is also extending her marketing efforts to potential clients outside the United States. In addition, the firm’s first book,