Famillion’s CEO Danny Rolls: We are all connected, wherever we come from, and once people realize that, it will change the way they think.Danny Rolls has the lyrics of John Lennon’s song, “Imagine” hanging on his office wall. “It’s my mantra,” says the founder and CEO of social family network portal, Famillion, with schoolboy eagerness. He brings it down for closer inspection and reads out the lines: ‘Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.’
“That’s what I believe. I don’t make the staff salute this picture in the mornings, but it’s a good idea,” he jokes.
According to the 34-year-old Israeli, Famillion is about to turn John Lennon’s vision of a shared world into reality. This is a very grand proposal, but then Famillion has some very grand ideas. The goal of the company’s web site, which allows users to create their own personal family trees, is to map the entire world through these trees.
This sounds preposterous, until Rolls explains that by the end of this year the site will have mapped the entire Jewish population of the world – some 12-13 million people, and within about two years will have mapped the Western world.
“Our vision is to connect all the people in the world through family trees,” Rolls tells ISRAEL21c. “We are all connected, wherever we come from, and once people realize that, it will change the way they think. People are always afraid of someone who is different from us, someone who is a stranger – it’s a basic trait of human nature. When people understand that we are all connected to one another, this sense of difference will disappear.”
Famillion’s strength compared to other genealogy or family network sites is that once a user has posted their family tree, the Famillion technology can recognize genealogical matches between individuals and families, enabling it to be merged with other related trees. As a result family trees begin to connect automatically, allowing users to discover new family members they might otherwise have been unaware of.
According to company information, as the trees connect, “the global family grows and relationships can be found between any two people in the world.” Some members may find new family members, while others might be pleased to discover they have familial connections to Bill Gates say, or maybe Albert Einstein, or any other famous personality.
You don’t even have to get the spelling of the names right. The site’s patented algorithm knows that Bob and Robert, for example, are the same name, and it can also check the many different ways people spell their surnames – an important feature relating to populations of immigrants who have changed their name on entry to another country.
Rolls says that it is possible to map a country or population group with only two to three percent of that population enrolled on the site. “That’s all we need for the trees to start to merge and connect between themselves,” he explains. “If we have 200,000 trees, we will map the Jewish world.”
The company is already on its way towards this goal. Last year it carried out a pilot education scheme called the Roots Project with the Ministry of Education at a number of schools in Israel. The project proved popular and this year will be repeated amongst seventh graders from every school across Israel.
And, as Rolls discovered in last year’s pilot, news of Famillion travels fast. “The project started in just a few schools with a few hundred children, but suddenly we had more than 15,000 trees. It was through word of mouth alone.”
The goal of mapping the Jewish world will be a proof of concept for Famillion, says Rolls. It will also help the company begin its greater task of mapping the US, and the rest of the world. “Remember that almost half of the Jews living in the US are married to non-Jewish people,” he says.
In the Israeli model, a number of families discovered new relatives elsewhere in Israel, and wrote to thank the company. “For us as Jews it’s a huge opportunity to find pieces of the puzzle that have been spread all over the world, that we often don’t know about,” says Rolls.
Another important role of the site is in creating a family history of hereditary-related diseases. In fact Rolls came up with the idea for Famillion when he and his wife, who was pregnant at the time, decided to take a number of genetic tests to check the health of their unborn child.
“We sat with the doctor and he wrote down all the inherited diseases that run through my family, and then did the same with my wife. As he did this I had a vision of all the family trees of all these people starting to flow into the middle of the room and merge into a huge tree, where everyone in the world was connected.”
It took Rolls another six years of thinking to come up with the technology to bring this vision to fruition. “The hardest thing was dealing with the different spellings. There are so many ways to write your name, and people often change their family names,” he explains. “The breakthrough came when I stopped looking at it as family trees, but looked at it instead as DNA, or as a bioinformatics system. I don’t care if the name is Weiss, or Shore, it’s the relationships between people that counts. The algorithm can check thousands of times how we are related to one another and map these relationships, then it looks for the same pattern in other trees.”
The result is an algorithm that doesn’t just match family trees with different spellings, but even family trees that are written in different languages.
Harvard Medical School has now taken an interest in Famillion and a joint pilot project will take place in Nantucket this summer, plotting the personal health histories of 4,000 people living there. Many of the families have lived in the same location for 400 years and Harvard regards this as a unique opportunity to examine their genetic health histories. This is the first time such a project, which is expected to last several months, has been carried out, and if successful, could have wide implications for the general population.
“The area of personal medicine is a huge one and we offer a very unique ability to collect health information,” says Rolls. “Nothing like this has ever been done before.”
Once the project is completed, the company will work with Harvard to create a protocol connecting this information. Rolls says the project will require a great deal of investment and must be promoted carefully.
Rolls is a serial entrepreneur who founded three start-ups before Famillion. These include a branding and marketing company, a flash-card kit company to help students pass psychometric tests, and an astrology website.
He founded Famillion in March of 2006, though much of the planning went on before that. Financing of several million dollars came from angel investors including Dr. Yagil Weinberg, a strategy consultant for companies such as Procter and Gamble and Fiat; Jim Manzi, the former head of Lotus Development Corporation; Ilan Shiloach, chairman and partner of McCann WorldGroup, Israel – a leading Israeli advertising agency; Jacob Burak and Ofer Ne’eman, shareholders in VC Evergreen; patent attorney Dr. Ilan Cohn; and Rolls himself.
Prof. Michael Porter, a world leading authority on competitive strategy from Harvard Business School, recently joined the company as an advisor.
“A few VCs wanted to be included but we decided that in the early stages we don’t want to take VC money, we want to organize the company with our vision.”
That vision includes free service for everything – even the health service – at least for the first few years. “We want to promote the health of the world, this is our task, and message, and vision of the company,” says Rolls. “We want to do business by doing good. After we connect all humanity there will be huge opportunities for advertising and e-commerce that have never existed before. There are so many opportunities for making money that we will have to choose what not to do, rather than what to do.”
Opportunities include dating services, e-commerce, secure banking, profiled advertising for vacation or ancestry tours, and a new sector that Rolls calls Business to Relative (B2R).
“One of the things that is important in our system is that everyone comes with their real identity. They can’t fake their identity as they do in other social networks on the Net,” Rolls points out.
After a year of development Famillion, which employs 15, and works with another 15 advisors from the Weizmann Institute, is now still at beta stage, but within a few weeks Rolls believes any last kinks will be ironed out.
Before launching, it was vital to Rolls that the privacy of site participants be protected completely. “We could have launched this site six months ago but until our security was working effectively we decided not to. Instead we waited until the time was right.”
Users can now decide who and what to expose to the world. Unsavory relations or private stories about the family can be hidden away. The user creates the boundaries on information sharing.
Famillion will launch its site in the next few weeks. While Rolls expects much of the marketing to be carried out virally, the company is also working closely with several organizations in Israel including Beth Hatefutsoth – the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, the Israeli Joint, and several municipalities.
While a site like Famillion can be easily used to explore one’s past, Rolls prefers to focus on the present. When he built his own tree, he had 70 members. Within a short time it had grown to hundreds of connections – most of them living.
“You can go back as far as you like and find relatives from 600-700 years ago. But it’s the present that matters, not the past,” says Rolls. “A site like this can bring peace to the world through understanding that we are all connected and are all related. If you think about it, it’s quite obvious.”