Philanthropists Push Police Searches of DNA Databases


Mr. Mittelman, Othram’s C.E.O., said his company had received more than $400,000 from philanthropic donors. According to Crunchbase, the start-up has also raised $28.5 million from institutional investors to corner the market around this new investigative technique. Founded in The Woodlands, Texas, in 2018, the company now has 30 employees, said Mr. Mittelman, including five full-time genealogical researchers, and will soon move to a new building, with a lab four times the size of its current one.

Othram’s pitch is simple: Government labs lack the expensive equipment needed to process DNA evidence — cigarette butts, bloodstained fabric, bone — which may be decades old, degraded or mixed with nonhuman materials. For now, private labs must do the work of creating genetic profiles that are compatible with those generated, much more easily, from a consumer’s saliva. Then forensic genetic genealogists must do the time-consuming labor of sorting through third cousins and population records. Finally, another DNA test is typically required to confirm a suspected match.

Othram wants to be the authorities’ one-stop shop for the whole process. “Once they see it, they are never going back,” Mr. Mittelman said.

The company created a site called DNASolves to tell the stories of horrific crimes and tragic John and Jane Does — with catchy names like “Christmas tree lady” and “angel baby” — to encourage people to fund budget-crunched police departments, so that they can hire Othram. A competitor, Parabon NanoLabs, had created a similar site called JusticeDrive, which has raised around $30,000.

In addition to money, Othram encouraged supporters to donate their DNA, a request that some critics called unseemly, saying donors should contribute to databases easily available to all investigators.

“Some people are too nervous to put their DNA in a general database,” said Mr. Mittelman, who declined to say how large his database is. “Ours is purpose-built for law enforcement.”

Carla Davis has donated her DNA, as well as that of her daughter and son-in-law. Her husband declined.


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