Cracking Cold Cases and Taking DNA Technology to the Next Level
Steven Armentrout (Ph.D. ’94, computer science) and his company Parabon NanoLabs are creating breakthrough products in forensics and nanotechnology
In June 2022, a Texas police department solved a 20-year-old cold case, finally putting the man who robbed and murdered a Houston-area convenience store owner behind bars. It was all thanks to a relentless detective, DNA evidence from the crime scene—and a tech innovator named Steven Armentrout (Ph.D. ’94, computer science), whose company Parabon NanoLabs (“Parabon”) is taking DNA innovation where it has never been before.
“From 2010 to 2014 we built a system called Snapshotâ DNA Phenotyping that can predict appearance, hair color, skin color, face shape and ancestry from a DNA sample,” said Armentrout, co-founder and CEO of Parabon. “No one had ever done anything remotely like that.”
Parabon's Advanced DNA Analysis Service, which includes genetic genealogy and kinship inference, as well as DNA phenotyping, provides critical information that can help detectives identify suspects and crack even the most challenging cases faster—and it’s working. The system has been used by nearly 600 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and in more than a dozen other countries.
“Our team has generated leads that have led to over 225 positive identifications and those cases have been cold, on average, for over 25 years,” Armentrout explained.
But Armentrout and his company aren’t stopping there. Parabon has also been exploring another new frontier in DNA technology, chemically engineering synthetic DNA for use in a variety of applications including drug delivery and therapeutics.
“I think it’s wonderful technology, building macromolecules with DNA,” Armentrout said. “Later this year we’ll be releasing software to facilitate design of 3D nanostructures. We’re excited to be, I think, the only U.S. company offering DNA nanotechnology design services today.”
Hooked on computer science
The son of an engineer, Armentrout was introduced to mathematics at an early age, but he didn’t take his first computer science class until he was an undergraduate student at James Madison University. From day one, he was hooked.
“The ability to have a machine do all this incredible work at your bidding was just a completely fascinating idea to me,” Armentrout recalled. “I understood how hard mathematics could be and I could see that this machine could not only help me do mathematics fast and accurately, but I could tune it to do anything I wanted and that was just completely exciting.”
After earning his B.S. degrees in mathematics and computer science in 1985, Armentrout worked for the CIA as an image analyst and later became a programmer for BDM Corporation. Hoping to broaden his tech skillset, he started taking night courses in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, where he met now Professor Emeritus of Computer Science James Reggia (B.S. ’71, physical sciences; Ph.D. ’81, computer science) and became fascinated with Reggia’s work in neural networks.
“I fell in love with it, and I told Jim that I would love to do an independent study with him,” Armentrout recalled. “I was really interested in this stuff, and he surprised me and offered me a job.”
With Reggia’s support, Armentrout took a deep dive into the world of neural networks and earned his Ph.D. in computer science in 1994.
“Jim was always somebody who could look at the field and see where the ball was going to be. That’s a good skill to have,” Armentrout said. “I told Jim on a number of occasions, probably more than anyone else besides my parents, he changed my life for the better.”
Adventures in sneakernet computing
After getting his doctorate, Armentrout began working in investments, applying neural networks to stocks and portfolio optimization. As a portfolio manager and later director of research at the The Burney Company, he took on quantitative modeling and explored the possibilities of distributed computing (via “sneakernet” at the time), which is basically transmitting electronic information over multiple computers by physically carrying it from one to another.
“I was the last guy to leave the office at night so I could run around and use everyone’s computers to run analysis software for our stock selection,” Armentrout said. “We didn’t have a way of distributing workloads across the network, so I was walking around with a floppy diskette, installing software and running algorithms. Then I would be the first guy in the next morning so I could go and collect all the data and assimilate it.”
By 2000, those sneakernet adventures inspired Armentrout to co-found Parabon Computation, one of the first companies to develop distributed computing software. But the company’s success in that area was short-lived.
“We wanted to make distributed computing software easy to use and scalable and it worked,” Armentrout explained. “We were able to solve some really interesting and hard problems but then companies like Amazon came along and really dominated the field. They had computational infrastructure that they could then turn around and sell, which provided a tremendous competitive advantage.”
For the Parabon team, it was time to pivot. They had already been doing extensive computational work in DNA analysis and modeling, and by 2008 the company’s focus shifted exclusively to DNA analysis and the subsidiary, Parabon NanoLabs, was formed.
“From 2010 – 2014 we created new DNA laboratory protocols for using single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and built a computer system for doing what is now called DNA phenotyping—predicting traits from DNA,” Armentrout explained. “We saw a path to technology there.”
That path eventually led to the SnapshotâAdvanced DNA Analysis Service—Parabon’s game-changing forensic DNA analysis system that uses SNPs combined with genetic genealogy, DNA phenotyping and kinship data to generate leads in hard-to-solve criminal cases. Years in development, the system analyzes biological and DNA evidence collected from a specific case, and then uses that information to build a composite profile that can help investigators make a positive ID and potentially make an arrest.
“When we started this, people did not even know that it was remotely possible and then suddenly it just became a thing,” Armentrout recalled. “We were getting invited to conferences and getting cases solved.”
Since its launch, Parabon’s cutting-edge DNA forensic analysis service has helped crack hundreds of cases around the world, many of them unsolved crimes that went cold decades earlier.
“The genetic genealogy service we launched in 2018, with the help of CeCe Moore, has helped the Snapshot division become arguably the most successful crimefighting team in history,” Armentrout said.
From cracking cases to tackling therapeutics
While Parabon’s bioinformatic and software team were developing Snapshot, the company’s chemists and another set of software engineers were working on the company’s other mission–– to create a new class of breakthrough nanopharmaceutical products. Parabon researchers have developed a platform called Essemblix™, a powerful new tool with applications including drug and vaccine development, individualized therapeutics and targeted drug delivery.
“This serves as a platform with which you can create drugs, nanosensing devices or diagnostic tools because you’re manipulating matter at nanoscale and you can use the DNA to pull other molecules into proximity to one another,” Armentrout explained. Later this year, the company plans to launch a software product that will facilitate 3D nanostructure design.
Other projects currently in development include a direct-to-consumer genetic test for Alzheimer's disease risk and vaccine formulations against HIV. And there’s more to come.
“The minute that I saw that you could weave DNA in this nonbiological way I got really excited about the possibilities,” Armentrout said. “And even though we don’t yet have any commercial biomedical products, I know they’re coming. Whether it’s drugs or nanosensing or something else, we know this field is exploding.” “We’re now to the point where we can bring the two sides of the operation together. We’re asking our bioinformatics team to generate therapeutic targets and our chemistry team is building structures to explore them.”
Featured in numerous TV crime shows and news stories, Parabon and its breakthrough DNA technology have won numerous awards over the years, including the Tibbetts Award from the US Small Business Administration, an award for small businesses that participate in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and exhibit excellence in technology innovation. Armentrout credits much of the company’s success to his wife Paula, Parabon’s co-founder and vice president, who has been a critical part of operations since day one.
“We’ve been business partners our whole lives as a couple and I wouldn’t know how to have a business without her,” Armentrout reflected. “She provides leadership and capabilities on the team that I don’t have, and she’s been a driving force in the company.”
Looking back on how his company has evolved and grown, Armentrout has a deep appreciation for how much they’ve accomplished. And he can’t wait to see what’s ahead.
“There was a time when you didn’t know if anybody was ever going to be a customer, then things started happening, our technology started making a difference and it was very validating,” Armentrout said. “We had the privilege of starting a new market segment in the law enforcement industry and we have some brilliant people that made all that possible. I’m proud to be part of the team that did that.”