The case of Roberta Walls, a 22-year-old library worker who was stabbed, raped and dumped in a baseball field in Virginia Beach, went cold in 1988. Local police collected DNA from 41 people with ties to Walls. But no one checked out.
More than 30 years later, the work of Parabon NanoLabs, a Reston-based company, is helping breath new life into the case.
The company uses DNA phenotyping to predict physical traits and ancestry from genetic material left at crime scenes. Genetic sleuths can track eye color, skin color, face shape and heritage, but not other traits like age, weight and hairstyle.
It’s a new way to look at DNA, which law enforcement agencies use by matching a suspect’s DNA to that found at a crime scene or cross-checking against government databases.
But at Parabon, staff see DNA as a blueprint, not a fingerprint, said Ellen Greytak, Parabon’s bioinformatics director. Forensic artists can use information from DNA phenotyping to develop a composite image, which investigators use to narrow suspect lists, sans witness descriptions. The method can also help further investigations about unidentified remains.
But the method has raised some concerns, including questions about accuracy, racial profiling and privacy infringement. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, calls composites “science fiction.” The organization says DNA phenotyping should not advertise suspects to the public until the science is firmly proven and established.
“The actual suspect may look nothing look the speculative image, which could end up detouring or otherwise harming an investigation,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst, wrote.
Greytak said the company is simply providing the same service a witness would have provided from an “objective” perspective. Law enforcement officials are becoming more open to the technology after Parabon analyzes DNA samples provided by police.
“We’re a genetic witness providing a description of that person. The information should be and is used by investigators in the same way a witness description should be,” Greytak said.
Although the company has limited control over how law enforcement agencies use the information, Greytak said most agencies understand the technology is not a panacea. The company cautions against running facial composites in facial recognition software.
“We always emphasize the composite is not a photograph of the person. We only have access to the DNA. It’s important to remember that two people with similar DNA could have a different appearance,” she said. “It’s not going to immediately solve every case but it’s always going to give you more information than what you have before.”
In the future, the company hopes to expand the number of predictable traits – especially age – and build up its database, which is used to build predict models. Currently, the database has information about DNA and physical appearance from volunteers.
Until then, Greytak said she finds the work especially worthwhile. Recently, the company began receiving handwritten thank you notes from loved ones whose cases Parabon is considering. For many, newfound hope in abandoned cases is uplifting, she said.
Photo via Parabon NanoLabs
Doug Meeker calls himself a corporate refugee. His son’s diagnosis with autism in 2003 pushed him off the corporate bandwagon and into the launch what he calls a “quest”: Life Sherpa.
The Reston-based app turns smartphones into personal trainers, giving young adults with executive functioning challenges like his 15-year-old son a step-by-step behavioral training program to traverse their day.
The concept is inspired by the Sherpas, an ethnic minority group in Eastern Nepal who have helped travelers like Edmund Hillary — the first person to climb Mt. Everest — navigate the treacherous mountain terrain.
The app’s main objective is to help young adults gain life skills as they transition into adulthood. It has drawn a diverse team of organizers, including members in Romania and India, who are united in their effort to help young adults overcome executive functioning challenges.
“The thing that keeps parents up at night is what happens they become adults. We can teach job skills to this population all day long, but… if they don’t have the basic life skills, it’s very hard to retain the job skills,” Meeker said. “The question comes down to this: How can we help this population gain more self-reliance?”
The app allows caregivers, therapists, counselors, school administrators and other stakeholders involved with the user to remotely monitor and measure their client’s progress.
But Meeker says the app’s goal was never to replace in-person human interaction critical to people’s success.
“What we really want to do is help the innovators scale their efforts. The more we can help them do that, the more we can free up resources to help more kids,” Meeker said.
Close to 100 clients are registered on the platform since its soft launch last in February last year.
Meeker said he believes the app will be successful because it draws on individual’s skills like close attentiveness to detail and the ability to solve complex problems.
The app also generates metrics and analytics to track client’s progress — departing from the days when clipboards and stopwatches were the primary tools for recording progress. Life Sherpa also uses consistent phrases and directions that are critical for successful behavioral therapy, he said.
Meeker hopes the app will continue to help young adults like his son — who is also a cancer survivor — transition into adult life.
“This is a personal quest. It’s all about creating ways for the individual to be independent and still be connecting to the people that are supporting them,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Doug Meeker
Two Reston-based software companies are one of the 500 fast-growing technology companies in United States, according to Deloitte’s annual ranking of the country’s fastest growing companies.
The ranking, Technology Fast 500, places LookGlass Cyber Solutions, Inc. at 105th place. The company is involved in the cyber intelligence industry.
Winners are ranked based on the percent of fiscal year revenue growth between 2013 and 2016. LookGlass Cyber Solutions, Inc. grew to 1,326 percent while GoCanvas grew by 528 percent.
“Winners underscore the impact of technological innovation and world class customer service in driving growth, in a fiercely competitive environment. These companies are on the cutting edge and are transforming the way we do business,” said Sandra Shirai, vice chairman of Deloitte.
The fastest-growing technology company that snagged the top title was Donuts, Inc, a Washington-passed company that is a global registry for domains. It experience a growth rate of 59,093 percent.
A complete list of rankings is available online.
Beer Run at Lake Anne Brew House Set for Wednesday — Runners can take a lap around the lake in Lake Anne Plaza at 6:30 p.m. The taproom will be open for runners and the cheering squad until 8:30 p.m. for beer and freshly-baked pretzels. All ages and paces are welcome. [Lake Anne Brew House]
South Lakes High School’s Football Team Overpowers McLean High School — The football team crushed McLean with a 77-7 win last Friday. The win, which happened on senior night, was the biggest margin of victory in four years. [South Lakes Athletics]
HighPoint Global Acquires Herndon-based Contractor — The company acquired Primescape Solutions, and information technology platform and services contractor, for an undisclosed sum. The move could improve the delivery of citizen experiences services to government agencies. The combined company could record around $140 million in annual revenue, according to a news report. [GovCon Wire]
Reston-based Serco, Inc. to Buy Massachusetts Firm — The 8,000-employee government services firm will acquire BTP Systems LLC in order to boost its hold over the defense sector business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed. [Washington Business Journal]
CEO of comScore in Reston to Retire in January — The news comes as the cross-platform measurement company settled a lawsuit with shareholder and activist Starboard Value. [Washington Business Journal]
Hot Again Today — Once again, Fairfax County emergency officials want to make sure residents are aware of the dangers of excessive heat. Temperatures are expected to again reach the 90s today, with a heat index topping 100. [Fairfax County Fire and Rescue]
Safety, Health More Urged for School Year — School starts next week, and Fairfax County officials want to make sure all the information residents need is being shared. Topics emphasized include the need to watch for stopped school buses, where to go for anxiety and stress relief, how to pack a healthy lunch and more. [Fairfax County]
‘Fake News’ Seminar Tonight — George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, along with the Fairfax County library system, is sponsoring a workshop titled “News Blues and How to Defuse.” It will take place tonight at 7 p.m. at the Centreville Regional Library. [WTOP]
Herndon Firm Working on Tank Protection — Herndon-based Artis is working on Iron Curtain, defense technology that would protect US Army tanks from rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles. [Business Insider]
CoreSite announced last week it will spend $60 million to acquire the 22-acre Sunrise Technology Park in the 12300 block of Sunrise Valley Drive, the Washington Business Journal reported.
Sunrise Technology Park, currently owned by Brookfield Office Properties, is a complex of four low-rise office buildings, totaling 315,000 square feet.
CoreSite says it could build more than 660,000 square feet of new data center capacity across the parcel. It currently has about 400,000 square feet of space in Reston.
CoreSite said in a release it expects to spend $90 million more on the first phase of the new development. Initial work will include the conversion of one 48,000-square-foot building into a data center, and the construction of two, 92,000-square-foot buildings — one data center shell, and one structure to house “centralized infrastructure.”
After the deal closes in December, CoreSite expects to start construction during summer 2017. It estimates it may spend as much as $500 million building out the site over many years and multiple phases.
“This planned expansion to our Reston campus is designed to meaningfully scale our colocation offering in the important Northern Virginia market, leveraging off of the installed network-and-cloud capabilities already deployed at the campus,” CoreSite president and CEO Tom Ray said in a statement.