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Fang writes: "Kincential Sciences, a company with an innovative line of cosmetic products marketed as a way to erase blemishes and soften skin, has caught the attention of beauty bloggers on YouTube, Oprah's lifestyle magazine, and celebrity skin care professionals."

A woman applies a skin care product to her face. (photo: Getty Images)
A woman applies a skin care product to her face. (photo: Getty Images)

CIA's Venture Capital Arm Is Funding Skin Care Products That Collect DNA

By Lee Fang, The Intercept

09 April 16


CIA’s Venture Capital Arm Is Funding Skin Care Products That Collect DNA

kincential sciences , a company with an innovative line of cosmetic products marketed as a way to erase blemishes and soften skin, has caught the attention of beauty bloggers on YouTube, Oprah’s lifestyle magazine, and celebrity skin care professionals. Documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that the firm has also attracted interest and funding from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The previously undisclosed relationship with the CIA might come as some surprise to a visitor to the website of Clearista, the main product line of Skincential Sciences, which boasts of a “formula so you can feel confident and beautiful in your skin’s most natural state.”

Though the public-facing side of the company touts a range of skin care products, Skincential Sciences developed a patented technology that removes a thin outer layer of the skin, revealing unique biomarkers that can be used for a variety of diagnostic tests, including DNA collection.

Skincential Science’s noninvasive procedure, described on the Clearista website as “painless,” is said to require only water, a special detergent, and a few brushes against the skin, making it a convenient option for restoring the glow of a youthful complexion — and a novel technique for gathering information about a person’s biochemistry.

In-Q-Tel, founded in 1999 by then-CIA Director George Tenet, identifies cutting-edge technology to support the mission of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and provides venture funding to help grow tech firms to develop those solutions.

Our company is an outlier for In-Q-Tel,” Russ Lebovitz, the chief executive of Skincential Sciences, said during an interview with The Intercept. He conceded that the relationship might make for “an unusual and interesting story,” but said, “If there’s something beneath the surface, that’s not part of our relationship and I’m not directly aware. They’re interested here in something that can get easy access to biomarkers.”

Still, Lebovitz claimed he has limited knowledge of why In-Q-Tel selected his firm.

I can’t tell you how everyone works with In-Q-Tel, but they are very interested in doing things that are pure science,” Lebovitz said. The CIA fund approached his company, telling him the fund shares an interest in looking at DNA extraction using the method pioneered by Skincential Sciences, according to Lebovitz.

Beyond that, Lebovitz said he was unsure of the intent of the CIA’s use of the technology, but the fund was “specifically interested in the diagnostics, detecting DNA from normal skin.” He added, “There’s no better identifier than DNA, and we know we can pull out DNA.”

Perhaps law enforcement could use the biomarker extraction technique for crime scene identification or could conduct drug tests, Lebovitz suggested.

Carrie A. Sessine, the vice president for external affairs at In-Q-Tel, declined a media interview because “IQT does not participate in media interviews or opportunities.”

(Officials at the venture capital firm have, in fact, given interviews in the past.)

Though In-Q-Tel operates in the open, it has often kept key details of its activities out of public view, beyond required annual reports. After a SecureDrop source told The Intercept about a gathering in San Jose for In-Q-Tel executives and start-up companies backed by the fund, The Intercept attempted to attend, but was denied access.

Skincential Sciences was among several presenting companies.

The shroud of secrecy around In-Q-Tel belies a 17-year effort to build ties between the CIA and the biggest names in Silicon Valley. Gilman Louie, a video game executive known for publishing best-sellers such as Tetris, Falcon, and Civilization II, was brought on as the first chief executive of In-Q-Tel. The popular mapping tool Google Earth was created around technology developed by Keyhole Corp., an In-Q-Tel-backed company that was later acquired by Google.

Still, little is publicly revealed about the use of In-Q-Tel-backed ventures and their relevance to the goals of intelligence agencies. Many of the fund’s investments are not publicly revealed. The fund is reviewed by the CIA’s inspector general and reports directly to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which frequently conducts business through classified briefings.

David Petraeus, while serving as the director of the CIA in 2012, remarked, “Our partnership with In-Q-Tel is essential to helping identify and deliver groundbreaking technologies with mission-critical applications to the CIA and to our partner agencies.”

Despite the association with computer and satellite technology, In-Q-Tel also maintains a long-running interest in developing advanced genetic analysis, biological technologies for detection and diagnostics, as well as research into what is known as physiological intelligence, which, in a 2010 article, the fund described as “actionable information about human identity and experience that have always been of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

The article, which is no longer available on the fund’s website but is preserved by a cache hosted by the Internet Archive, argues that advances in medical research into biomarkers can be leveraged by intelligence agencies for a variety of uses, from airport security to next-generation identification tools.

A diagram in the article calls human skin the body’s largest organ and a “unique, underutilized source for sample collection.” The author, Dr. Kevin O’Connell, then a “senior solutions architect” with In-Q-Tel, notes, “The DNA contained in microorganisms in a person’s gut or on a person’s skin may contain sequences that indicate a particular geographical origin.”

In-Q-Tel has invested in several companies working in this realm, in addition to Skincential Sciences. In 2013, In-Q-Tel publicly announced a strategic partnership with Bio-NEMS, a firm that developed a semiconductor device used to analyze DNA for a variety of diagnostic and human identification applications. Claremont BioSolutions, a diagnostics firm, and Biomatrica, a firm that specializes in preparing biological samples for DNA testing, are also backed by In-Q-Tel.

Skincential Sciences did not start out as a beauty company. The firm was founded in 2010 as DX Biosciences, which was developed around a patent by a team of scientists including Dr. Samir Mitragotri of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mitragotri has published research into the use of biomarkers as a “window to body’s health.”

The company gained early backing from Frontier, a venture capital company, among other investors.

While the technology has potential for a variety of medical diagnostics, including early melanoma detection, Lebovitz said the company quickly realized it had immediate value as a cosmetic. The application of the detergent developed by the firm could be used easily to diminish blemishes and dark patches on the skin. And unlike similar treatments at aesthetic spas, the technology developed by Dr. Mitragotri and his colleagues did not require acid or any discomfort.

In 2013, the firm relaunched and recapitalized as Skincential Sciences, with Clearista as its primary brand of beauty products.

Lebovitz says he intends to continue developing the technology so that it may be medically relevant, but he is also focusing on breaking into the multibillion-dollar skin care market. While Skincential has won measured success for its Clearista brand products by landing coverage on television and through social media, the company has not yet been able to compete with mainstream skin care companies.

Jamie Walsh, a blogger who runs Glam Latte, a beauty website, endorsed a Clearista product on her YouTube channel, noting that with only one application of the cream, her skin improved and was “glowing.” Walsh said Skincential Sciences sent her the product for a testimonial, and noted that like many independent brands, she did not know about the company’s funding.

Skincential hopes to license its product with a major distributor, or even one day become acquired by a larger beauty company. “We’ll take any of those,” said Lebovitz.

The chief executive noted that he is proud of the In-Q-Tel support, calling the fund “great partners.”

At the gathering in February for In-Q-Tel portfolio companies, Lebovitz joined a crowd that included a number of In-Q-Tel executives, along with senior members of the intelligence community. Presenting speakers included Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, and John Maeda, design partner of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a leading Silicon Valley investment firm.

“Not only was I the odd man out,” Lebovitz said, “but almost every woman at the conference wanted to come up to me to talk about skin care.” your social media marketing partner


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+15 # dotlady 2016-04-09 22:49
CIA's got you under your skin.
+2 # Darthvadersmom 2016-04-10 05:03
I have mixed feelings about this after reading the entire article. All good to know--thanks for posting this.
+16 # lorenbliss 2016-04-10 05:47
Give USian tyranny a few more years, and every person born in the homeland will be DNA-recorded at birth.

In fact, knowing the Gestapo mindset of our capitalist overlords, I would not be at all surprised if it were happening already.

Likewise DNA from anyone older who requires clinical blood work.

All the secret police need to collect it is to invoke national security, which cannot be appealed because of the attendant imposition of secrecy, and which thereby destroys whatever might remain of one's personal privacy forever.

No privacy, no rights: that's the post-American-D ream USian Way, and it matters not whether the next president is Hitlery, der Trumper or some other Christofascist Republican.

Such is existence in the slave-pens of capitalism.
+5 # Kootenay Coyote 2016-04-10 08:13
Big Brotherism: viciously more than skin deep.
+9 # elkingo 2016-04-10 12:37
Before you even get to this (almost) nigh unbelievable Orwellian horror: THE CIA HAS A VENTURE CAPITAL ARM???!!! Since when are government agencies in business? Isn't there a Constitutional issue here? Of course, with psychotic capitalism run rampant, this whacko science-fiction scenario begins to cohere.
+1 # Passing Through 2016-04-11 16:05
Thank you, that was my first thought, too; you said it brilliantly.
+6 # elkingo 2016-04-10 12:41
Uh, can I invest in the CIA? It's gotta be a growth stock under ever encroaching fascism. "The business of America is business."
Herbert Hoover (?)
+2 # bmiluski 2016-04-10 12:43
OK folks.....just exactly how will the CIA get my DNA if I use this product?
0 # DD1946 2016-04-10 14:36
Exactly! How do they get the gathered info back into their hands?
+1 # lorenbliss 2016-04-10 19:01
Not hard: a variation on the same way they forcibly registered millions of USians for the military draft during the 1950s. This was having people sign their kids up for birthday favors from one of the fast-food merchants, which then turned all the information over to the Selective Service System.

(I Googled this story, a major Vietnam Era scandal, but like so many other such scandals, it has been flushed down the Orwell hole, though other males my age should surely remember it.)

Returning to the subject of DNA collection, given how capitalist marketing strategies maliciously condition USian women to bottomless, worst-in-the-wo rld insecurity about their attractiveness, offering free beauty consultations would drawn in at least 90 percent of the sexually-active demographic groups, and technology would do the rest. Quite simple, given the divinely intrusive powers of the computer. And given the mandatory ignorance of the typical corporate retail employee, easy to accomplish (just as the fast food operation collected the requisite draft-registrat ion data) without anyone but the secret police being in on the invasion of privacy. ("Here, employee, put the tissues with which each woman wipes her face into this envelope with her name, address and Social Security number so the company can tailor their products to helping your customers be even more beautiful...")

Not difficult to imagine at all -- not after you acknowledge the infinitely predatory Evil of capitalism.
0 # Patriot 2016-04-25 11:46
Capitalism is no more inherently evil than money is inherently evil. It is greed and avarice that are evil. Greedy, avaricious people can pervert ANY system or philosophy until it seems, in and of itself, to be evil.

Racing horses isn't evil, but greed and avarice engender soring, a process that tortures and cripples horses to produce Tennessee Walkers is.

Breedling horses, dogs, and cat is not evil. But killing the foals of "nurse" horses, and kitten and puppy mills ARE evil.

Capitalism is defined as an economic and political system in which trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than the state. Its synonyms are free enterprise, private enterprise, the free market. Its antonym is communism (ownership of trade and industry by government).
0 # Patriot 2016-04-25 11:49
Socialism is a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. In Marxist theory, socialism is a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism. It has been used to describe positions as far apart as anarchism, Soviet state communism, leftism, welfarism, radicalism, progressivism, and social democracy; however, it necessarily implies an opposition to the untrammeled workings of the economic market. The socialist parties that have arisen in most European countries since the late 9th century have generally tended toward social democracy.

I prefer capitalism, regulated by the political will of the people to produce a society in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned privately (rather than by government), but regulated for the equal benefit of both owners and those who actually do the work that produces profit.

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