Q&A: Claret Bioscience & Astrea Forensics CEO Kelly Harkins Kincaid on what’s new since Coronavirus
By Sara Isenberg
Founder, Publisher, Editor-in-Chief, Santa Cruz Tech Beat
April 22, 2020 — Santa Cruz, CA
Customers are applying local biotech startup’s method in development of COVID-19-related tests.
(Photo above: Kelly Harkins Kincaid is the CEO of two Santa Cruz biotech startups: Clariet Bioscience and Astrea Forensics. Contributed.)
Santa Cruz Tech Beat has published a variety of news about both Claret Bioscience and Astrea Forensics in the past but it’s been a while. I had the recent opportunity to catch up — at a safe distance — with Kelly Harkins Kincaid, CEO of both biotech startups, located in our “Biotech Hub” on the westside of Santa Cruz.
SCTB: First, introduce us to both of your companies: Claret Bioscience and Astrea Forensics.
Kelly Harkins Kincaid (KHK): Claret Bioscience spun out of the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab in 2017 with a mission to provide DNA sequencing tools that exploit novel information discovered at the ends of DNA fragments, including in single DNA strands. We have two novel technologies for improving sequencing-based biomedical discovery from cell-free DNA and other sample types.
Our technology excels at getting a lot of information from very little DNA input. This fact, along decades of collective experience working with DNA from human remains, led to the founding of a new spinoff. Astrea Forensics is extending the forensics work Dr. Green began on the UCSC campus using ClaretBio’s technology. Astrea provides whole-genome services and analyses for rootless hair and other difficult samples to help law enforcement in their mission to solve cold cases.
SCTB: Indeed, Dr. Green and Astrea got national press for helping solve cold cases. What’s new at your companies?
Within the last six months, ClaretBio has gone commercial! Last year we established a small production facility adjacent to our R&D lab. After a period of beta testing, we launched our line of DNA library preparation kits, called SRSLY (Single Reaction Single-Stranded LibrarY). SRSLY is designed for labs and companies who use Illumina sequencing to interrogate DNA data, especially from clinical sample types. Last fall, we received our second National Cancer Institute SBIR grant, and we published two journal articles describing our two technologies. The ClaretBio team also grew from 5 to 8, with our newest employee starting next week.
Astrea Forensics was founded in the fall of 2019. We established a small facility, also here in Santa Cruz, and hired other experts in ancient DNA to help get the lab up and running. As of November, we are actively taking cases, from agencies all across the United States.
SCTB: Do you have any other startups in the works? 🙂
KHK: Startups seem to be as all-consuming as small children. I learned a lot with the first that I could apply to the second. And the two now play well with each other… but I’m not ready for three kids!
SCTB: What has changed in your work life or role as a result of Coronavirus?
KHK: ClaretBio is the type of work environment where everyone was in the office every day. This made us a tight-knit team that could communicate effectively and change direction quickly when needed. Running both companies from home was definitely an adjustment. Overall, there is lot more time on Zoom, a lot of checking in with one another, and of course, many meetings to schedule meetings. But, I have been impressed with how the team has stepped up to this challenging work (and work from home) environment. For this reason, we are still making progress towards many of our company goals, both in operations, sales, and R&D (cancer research).
ClaretBio and Astrea people now work mostly from home with some exceptions. Days when wetlab work or production is deemed necessary (e.g. basic minimum operations), we have instituted a one-person-per-space policy. A lot of preparation and forethought therefore goes into scheduling each week of in-lab work. Luckily, we operate a genetics lab where PPE and potent cleaning solvents are freely available; I feel we can take good care of ourselves and each other. With that said, going into the workplace is not mandatory for any employee. This goes for both companies.
SCTB: Has anything changed in your scientific focus as a result of Coronavirus?
KHK: As a company that makes tools for sequencing nucleic acid (DNA/RNA), we were eager to think of ways that our product might contribute to scientific understanding of Coronavirus.
For example, our R&D team is now testing the performance of the SRSLY technology coupled with 3rd party assays that target sars-cov2. We hope to demonstrate to any research labs interested in sequencing complete virus genomes that the SRSLY kit works great for this purpose. We are also excited that some SRSLY kit customers are applying our method in development of RUO covid19-related tests or generally sequencing microbial RNA/DNA in human samples.
I believe if we were in a position to contribute more actively to the current testing crisis, e.g. had the appropriate laboratory accreditation, we would seriously consider the strategy.
SCTB: On a personal note, your husband is a physician. Has the pandemic shifted how you do and don’t get to spend time together?
KHK: I have seen my husband for one week since the pandemic began in early March. He works as a “reservist” ER physician, currently stationed in Indiana. The pandemic has made our lives even more unpredictable. Not knowing whether he’ll be able to travel back and forth, where they will send him in a month, or whether he will get infected and/or sick, have added to the uncertainty. When he was last home, he slept in a separate room and we tried our best to stay at a distance. It’s not an ideal situation but I am proud of him.