Disruption in the world of DNA analysis

Sebastian Kraves Bring Hands-On, Affordable Biotech to “Everyone, Everywhere” with the miniPCR Machine

Boston Consulting Group alumnus Sebastian Kraves [Boston, 2007–2013] has made DNA analysis more democratic.

Sebastian helped invent the miniPCR, a machine that heralds a shift from academic science to citizen science, empowering everyone—from families, to school kids, to field scientists—to contribute to our universal body of knowledge.

This inexpensive, user-friendly machine lets operators explore and investigate DNA-related topics using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, in which a short sequence of DNA can be replicated and analyzed. The miniPCR has the analysis power of machines ten times its size at one-tenth of the cost. It’s portable, requires no set-up, can be controlled via smartphone app, and can be used for all sorts of experiments, such as family-tree inquiry, pathogen detection, or forensic DNA sleuthing.

“We see it as a case of low-end disruption. We’re bringing DNA analysis technology out of the high-end lab and putting it into the hands of everybody, everywhere,” says Sebastian.

Sebastian became fascinated with DNA when, at the age of 12, he read Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Even at that young age, Sebastian knew that he wanted to become a DNA scientist. When he got to high school, however, he found that his classrooms lacked the tools necessary for DNA study—a realization that planted a seed that grew into a lifelong quest.

Sebastian’s passion for science led him to become a Harvard-trained molecular neurobiologist, publishing papers on neural circuits and the genetic regulation of behavior. He then took a slight detour—to become a consultant.

“I wanted to learn about the links between scientific innovation and real-world impact. To understand, for instance, how discoveries are translated into medicines, and then how those medicines are brought to market, and how they subsequently impact our day-to-day lives. There was no better school for that than BCG.”

Sebastian adds that much of his drive to create the miniPCR was informed by his global health work in BCG’s Social Impact practice. “Being involved with organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it became evident that much of the technology we use to diagnose infectious diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, and dengue fever is inadequate for the job in many countries where it is most needed.”

Post-BCG, Sebastian teamed up with geneticist Ezequiel (Zeke) Alvarez-Saavedra.

The two reflected that the machines they had used in their respective work in labs at Harvard and MIT were unnecessarily complex for most applications. Additionally, the tools used to analyze DNA had become increasingly intricate and expensive.

Energized by the desire to make DNA analysis simpler and more accessible, Sebastian and Zeke turned their backs on conventional standards, and worked to build a product that would “meet the needs of 98% of users at 10% of the cost.”

In 2014, the miniPCR was brought to market, with Sebastian at the helm of business operations and development. “One big question we’ve had to ask ourselves as we’ve grown—and this brings me back to my BCG case team days— is ‘do we focus on building strong share in existing markets, or do we broaden our ambitions by working to crack open new markets?’”

Having opted for the latter, miniPCR’s impact has taken even its creators by surprise. “We had not anticipated the range of applications that users have found for it,” said Sebastian. Indeed, miniPCR has already been used to combat Ebola in Sierra Leone, enable lemur conservation efforts in Madagascar, and train biomedical workers in Haiti. It has even gone into space.

The machine caught the attention of The Boeing Company, sparking interest in what it could do for molecular testing in places as remote as the International Space Station (ISS). Partnering with Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), Sebastian and his team created Genes in Space, an experiment competition open to middle and high school students throughout the US.

On April 8, 2016, the miniPCR was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, as part of the SpaceX-8 Cargo Mission. With it went the winning competition entry, designed by New York high school senior Anna-Sophia Boguraev, to test if PCR can be used to study DNA alterations experienced by astronauts during spaceflight.

Proud as he is to see his product launched into orbit, Sebastian’s bigger ambitions remain solidly earth-bound.

His great passion is to promote DNA literacy in US schools to inspire future generations of scientists. Sebastian’s team markets miniPCR to science departments across the country as affordable, hands-on learning. The machine can help teach essential biotech skills such as genetics, physiology, evolution, forensics, and agricultural biology.

“Our dream is that every kid in the country will one day have access to contemporary genomic technology,” Sebastian said.

To help make this dream a reality, Sebastian recruited BCG alumnae Mugdha Narasimhan [Boston, 2008–2014] to join his leadership team as chief experience officer. “Bringing Mugdha on board was an easy decision. She was a known entity from a known culture, with a passion very similar to ours,” said Sebastian.

Mugdha is excited to provide young people an opportunity to explore biology through scenario-based experiments. “There are so many ways the miniPCR can engage students to transform and impact the teaching of science in our classrooms,” she said. An experiment might take the form of a crime scene where a town’s baker has gone missing and DNA analysis is needed to help find her; or a project to genetically characterize wild salmon to compare their DNA signature to supermarket-bought salmon; or a test to examine samples of ground beef for the presence of bacterial DNA that might be responsible for an outbreak of E.coli.

Mugdha has been impressed by Sebastian’s lead-by-example approach as he works to spread the word. “He wants us to take time to talk to teachers; he wants us to help them write grants to make our product affordable. And I’ve known him, more than once, to drive a long distance to deliver our product, saving resource-constrained schools money on shipping. He does whatever it takes to get this technology into the hands of as many students as possible.”

“In this genome era, everybody should have access to tools like the miniPCR,” Sebastian says. “DNA analysis can be affordable, portable, and easy to do. It is our hope that the miniPCR will do for biology what the cell phone has done for communication.”

“I wanted to learn about the links between scientific innovation and real-world impact. To understand, for instance, how discoveries are translated into medicines, and then how those medicines are brought to market, and how they subsequently impact our day-to-day lives. There was no better school for that than BCG.”

Sebastian Kraves
Cofounder of miniPCR, Molecular Neurobiologist