Claret CEO Kelly Harkins Kincaid: The Science of Entrepreneurship

Bioarchaeologist Kelly Harkins Kincaid, cofounder of Claret Bioscience, says that before arriving at UCSC, she “never even heard of inventing things.”

Bioarchaeologist Kelly Harkins Kincaid, cofounder of Claret Bioscience, says that before arriving at UCSC, she “never even heard of inventing things.”

When Kelly Harkins Kincaid arrived in Santa Cruz two-plus years ago, she had no idea that she would wind up starting a company. Just a couple weeks ago, Claret Bioscience came out of stealth mode, and is poised to tackle an enormous biotech challenge: helping clinicians detect cancer via blood tests. We spoke with Kelly about paleogenetics, Human Genome Project hero Dr. David Haussler, and the monthly Girls Rock mountain biking event.

I read on Santa Cruz Tech Beat that Claret Bioscience was born from the field of ancient DNA. Can you say how that happened?

Well, my background is in bioarchaeology—my PhD is in the study of human remains from archeological contexts. And I worked a lot in recovering pathogen DNA from bone. So I was used to working with very, very degraded material. And when you're looking at for a pathogen within a population of degraded molecules, now you're looking at a fraction of a fraction—something on the order of 0.1 percent of a population of DNA molecules.

And, essentially, there are other molecules out there in the world that are just as degraded and crappy as ones that come from once-living organisms. And those are mostly found in clinical samples and forensic samples. So there's this whole world of technology expertise that we have in ancient DNA that can be applied to things in the biomedical world. And we thought, well, there's sort of an avenue here for commercialization.

Prior to Claret, you and your cofounder, Ed Green, seem to have been on parallel tracks of study. Can you say how your specific work and his fit together?

I had been working in my field for awhile, and I had gotten a National Science Foundation postdoctoral position at UCSC—still in the archeology and anthropology department. And it was an interdisciplinary version where I had to choose another track that would meld with my anthropology-archeology side. I use genetic tools to answer questions, and so the biomolecular engineering part of my work led me to Ed Green.

Ed runs the paleogenomics lab with Beth Shapiro, who's in the evolutionary ecology and biology program. And they run their ancient DNA lab together. But what Ed is really good at is methods development. So he ended up being my co-supervisor on this fellowship.

And lo and behold, I really took to methods development, assay development, and that led to the technology that is now the foundation for Claret.

Your first product, SRSLY (Single Reaction Single-stranded DNA LibrarY prep kit) has the boldest or most tortured tech acronym I’ve seen in some time. Where did that touch of humor come from?

That was me. That was just me trying to make an acronym that made sense. You know, it's kind of fun to name projects, because otherwise you're like, ‘you know, that one project, the one with the single reaction single-stranded DNA library.’ You end up needing to call it something. This one just came to me very early on, as soon as we got the technology in our hands, I named it Seriously (SRSLY). It was organic.

And … we have a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor in the company. That’s the culture. And the culture at Claret is one of the things I'm most proud about.

The company’s name—that’s a bit of a pun too?

Well, claret is Cockney slang for blood. it seemed like a good fit because our first targeted application was the DNA found in your blood.

How close is Claret to enabling labs to detect cancer-derived DNA by drawing a patient’s blood?

Well, I don't know a lot of CEOs, and this is certainly my first rodeo, so I am really hesitant to claim anything before it is bulletproof. So—I think the idea of getting DNA and learning something about cancer-derived molecules from a blood draw is on the horizon. I just don't have the answer for how close I think we are. We're on the technical path to getting there.

You work with UC Santa Cruz’s David Haussler, who led the team that assembled the first human genome sequence as part of the Human Genome Project; to what extent did his team’s discoveries contribute to your technology?

Having the human genome is sort of the foundation, in many ways, of a lot of the analysis that we do‑and that everyone does. This is not unique to us. Every time we get DNA samples, we find out where in the genome it came from. And David’s just been a really supportive and enthusiastic advisor. He's just been, for all of these years, seeing it all and seeing technology go from pre-Sanger [inventor of gene sequencing] all the way through next-gen sequencing. So it's been a pleasure working with him.

David is currently very involved with machine learning, a.k.a. artificial intelligence. Does AI play a role in your product?

We definitely implement it in the R-and-D of this discovery tool that we're building. Because the data that we are collecting from the DNA is so multifaceted, it's so complex, that it's almost a necessity that a machine helps us distinguish patterns and signals that we otherwise wouldn't be able to see. There are probably smart ways and dumb ways to use artificial intelligence but I think this is a great application for AI.

What our technology is doing is capturing a piece of information from DNA that no one has yet appreciated, and that is typically thrown away, in traditional or conventional methods of preparing DNA for sequencing. So, when you add a component to the dataset that no one's ever seen, you want some help in figuring out, 'how useful is this new piece of information.' So machine-learning tools are helping us with that.

In her new book Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age, Stanford historian Leslie Berlin profiles Niels Reimers, the Stanford administrator who encouraged professors and graduate students to start companies—a revolutionary innovation at the time. UCSC seems to be pursuing a similar path. How typical is this in academia today?

So ... before moving into UCSC, or even moving from anthropology into a more STEM-focused field, I had never even heard of inventing things, and protecting intellectual property that you had invented.

There are some key players at UCSC that kind of make it unique. It's been a completely new and sort of eye-opening experience to know that there are these other options. I've gained a completely new vocabulary in the last two years, since it was brought to my attention that you can commercialize a technology that you invent at the university.

In what ways is locating in Santa Cruz helping Claret Bio?

Keeping employees happy! I think that people who work in Santa Cruz and live in Santa Cruz like that there's a certain quality of life. I'm sure that lots of companies say the same thing, but I think it's helped us. It can be hard to recruit people from over the hill—I don't know, it's as if they don't know what they're missing. But I think everyone is excited to be living and working in Santa Cruz.

It attracts a different personality—a more adventuresome spirit. Especially in science because in science you have a lot of people who are conformists, they're scientists! They're not exactly whatever the stereotype of a Santa Cruz local is. But here everybody's interested in doing all kinds of stuff. We've got one guy who comes in only after he's done his surfing in the morning, and I mountain bike from the office at the end of the day, and we've got people who bike to work every single day. It's just—it's Santa Cruz.

What’s your favorite Santa Cruz activity when you are Out Of Office?

I love being on the mountain-bike trails. It's such a great community. I didn't mountain bike at all when I moved here. and it was sort of like, 'when in Rome...". I knew that it was a Mecca for mountain biking, so I rolled up to the bike shop my first week in town and said 'what should I buy?' And then I met a bunch of women through the Girls Rock mountain bike group, which I now guide for and volunteer for every month.

It's been the source of my community, and I spent a lot of time with Santa Cruz women out on the trails.

Meet Kelly Harkins Kincaid on September 4 at Get Biotech 2019.