June 21, 2013 by Harmeet Singh, Online Editor
After several years of development, a Canadian company is launching a product that uses a consumer’s DNA to mark valuable assets, a tool it says insurers can use to track items after loss or theft.
Alastair Russell, now CEO of Identa-DNA Corp. began developing the product after several years of selling products from SmartWater, a United Kingdom-based asset-marking technology company, in Canada.
Some of that product’s limitations prompted Russell and his business partner, forensic chemistry specialist Marc Gaudreau (who has since moved on from the company), to develop the recently-launched Identa-DNA product.
Now, the Mississauga, Ont.-based company plans to distribute it through insurance providers to clients interested in marking valuable assets and documents.
To mark an asset, such as a piece of jewelry, a will or a painting, a policyholder would use a kit from Identa-DNA, received from their insurance company or broker.
Customer DNA stays at home
The client would use the kit’s sterilized swab (like a Q-tip) on the inside of their cheek to get their DNA sample.
They would then insert the swab into the Identa-DNA marker, or “quill,” puncturing a capsule that contains a chemical solution, and use that to mark an asset.
The company has also designed a variety of solutions applicable to different surfaces (such as soft paper or hard metal surfaces), Russell explained. The client (an insurer) could choose what specification works best for them.
The product is also available as “overt,” where the marking would be seen under a UV light, or “covert,” where the marking would be visually undetectable.
The solution contained in the product acts as a way to make the DNA traceable for a longer period of time, since DNA is often destroyed in the open air quickly.
Russell makes an analogy to the cloning done in Jurassic Park, where a mosquito that had dinosaur blood inside it was preserved in yellow amber (eventually allowing modern-day scientists to have the dinosaur’s genetic code).
While obviously fiction, the idea of containing and preserving DNA in a solution is similar to the Identa-DNA product, Russell said.
“The individual does not give his DNA away; the DNA remains at home,” Russell said, an important distinction in terms of potential privacy issues.
Because the applicator swab is the only part of the product that goes into the consumer’s mouth, Identa was able to avoid regulatory issues, Russell noted. The solution contained in the marker is also non-toxic, he added.
The product did, however, face a long process in getting a patent, beginning in 2004. Last summer, its patent was finally approved in the United States, and earlier this year, the Canadian government approved the patent as well.
Product sold through brokers, insurers
Identa plans to sell a quantity of the products to insurers or brokers, not directly to consumers yet, Russell said. In large quantities, the cost for each item could be as low as $25, he noted.
The target customer would be clients with middle to high worth assets included in their home insurance policies.
“From an insurance perspective, it’s a tremendous opportunity to improve the connectivity between themselves and their clients with regards to providing a service,” Russell said. It can also provide an opportunity to upgrade coverage, he added.
Russell said that two major insurance companies here are already interested in the product, as well as a major Canadian bank. The legal community has also shown interest, and the product also has commercial and public sector applications, for marking important items like passports, he added.
Forensic lab partnership helps in claims process
After marking items, clients can report the items that are marked, along with a photo and estimated value, to their insurance provider, who could catalog that information in a database using software from Identa-DNA.
Insurance companies would each manage their own database, with technical support from Identa for what Russell said would be a nominal fee.
The insurer could then report the lost item to police. If the item were found, Identa-DNA would provide a kit to both the client and the police to match the DNA and confirm the item belonged to the client.
For analysis, Identa-DNA plans to partner with an independent forensic lab that has accreditation from the Standards Council of Canada.
“The process of analyzing DNA has improved dramatically both in terms of its time element and its cost,” Russell also noted, pointing out that the cost is dramatically lower than when DNA began to be used in investigations decades ago.
And, unlike fingerprint security technology for laptops or other valuables, Russell argues that the Identa-DNA is much more comprehensive in terms of its complexity and its match to a specific individual. “Nothing comes close to DNA.”