‘Our technology allows you to name the nameless’
Swathi A. Kumar is senior director of marketing at Verogen, a company based in San Diego that produces next-generation sequencing solutions for forensic investigations. Before joining Verogen in 2019, she worked for seven years at Illumina. She talked to ASBMB Today about her training and work experience. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Current position: Senior director of product and marketing at Verogen
Education: Ph.D. in genetics and statistics, The Pennsylvania State University
First job outside of academia: Bioinformatics scientist at Illumina
Favorite molecule or protein: “It’s a toss-up between GATA-1, a master regulator in blood cell formation, and two of its friends, EKLF and TAL 1. They participate in a tightly orchestrated dance aided by multiple epigenetic markers that determine the development of the right blood cells at the right time. I like those three proteins.”
What steps did you take toward your first job after your Ph.D.?
I was a graduate student in the lab of Ross Hardison at Penn State. Ross encouraged a cross-departmental approach to scientific reasoning, which led me to getting my hands dirty with computational biology and statistical analysis of large-scale sequencing projects like modENCODE.
In my last year of grad school, I landed an internship at the Office of Technology Management at Penn State working with multiple inventors and in-house licensing specialists on reviewing intellectual property and generating pitch decks geared toward licensing and commercializing early-stage technologies.
Illumina was clearly the disrupter in the sequencing space and emerging as early winner of competitive next-generation sequencing technologies. I was an early adopter of its applications and tools and could see the impact that digitizing DNA would have on so many fields — whether it was unraveling research questions, developing targeted therapeutics for cancer or rare diseases, or enabling the next wave of forensics and agrigenomics innovations. The applications were enormous, and so I wanted to be in that ecosystem of people who were driving it.
I joined their bioinformatics team. Illumina was then a midsize company gearing up for big things and wanted talent who would help on that journey.
It was a really good fit. I got to do research and development and eventually sales and marketing. It was a very happy marriage of being able to flex the research brain but also understand: What does it take to build a product? What does it take to manufacture? What does it take to sell? And, importantly, how do you manage innovation and an invention engine?
Tell me about Verogen.
Verogen is a venture capital–backed DNA biometrics–based human identification company. It appealed to me on multiple levels. First, a smaller company allows you to focus on a single market and move the needle on technology adoption. Second, the company is global; it’s an opportunity to partner with multiple criminal justice systems worldwide in a market that is ripe for disruption.
Crime labs, globally, still use 30-year-old technology on a day-to-day basis. It is inefficient, restrictive and not sensitive enough to support the multitude of applications the forensic community needs. Our goal is to empower them with newer technology that is cheaper, more efficient and more accurate. That’s really important if you want to provide an answer to those who’ve been victims of crime, or if you want to exonerate the innocent who were put in a prison based on inefficient technologies, or even if you want to identify victims of genocide, mass disasters or the thousands of John and Jane Does. Our technology allows you to name the nameless.
What does a day in your work life look like?
It’s really important for me to be close to our customers in crime labs and those they serve. That could mean talking to lab directors and technicians to understand challenges they are facing or emerging applications on the horizon. It could also mean engaging with members of law enforcement to understand limitations of current approaches or folks working on forensic standards and policy.
Another equally important portion is ensuring that input is available to the smart people who are building all of these tools and trying to solve those problems.
As a business leader, it is also key for me to understand how we might commercialize a new product, evaluate new partnerships and competition, and determine how we can build our brand and demand.
What types of organizations or companies use these products?
Our products are broadly used by justice systems: public and private crime labs in the U.S., Institutes of Legal Medicine in Europe, and multiple federal or national police groups in the rest of the world. In addition, we partner with national and international groups that have an interest in putting a name to unidentified remains. We spend a fair bit of time educating groups that have an interest in ensuring that governments at all levels are investing in critical infrastructure and better technologies in service of victims of crime.
What skills helped you prepare for your career?
Innate skills that are helpful to build are curiosity and resourcefulness. This is true regardless of which career path you go down. And taking a systems view to any problem set is also helpful: looking beyond the immediate task at hand and understanding the context or where it fits in the larger scheme of things. Finally, developing a customer context or a customer-oriented mindset is critical, because not all good ideas are successful in the market.
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