Data analysis that will transform wastewater infrastructure into public health observatories
We can learn a lot about a community from its waste. From what its residents eat, to the drugs they take, to the diseases they contract — waste reveals a nuanced portrait of health. And until now, such portraits would disappear with every flush.
Biobot Analytics analyzes urine and stool collected in sewers and unites that data into a dynamic picture of a community’s wellbeing. By mapping this anonymous data, Biobot helps communities and private health partners proactively tackle public health issues. Imagine detecting the signs of a potential pandemic before the community exhibited symptoms and, as a result, implementing protective measures before the disease had time to spread.
The vision of co-founders Mariana Matus and Newsha Ghaeli, Biobot is working to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the first large-scale implementations of its platform. With the help of communities across the country, the startup hopes to sidestep inefficiencies inherent in the existing testing platforms to more efficiently combat the historic outbreak.
Matus and Ghaeli founded Biobot by asking: can we look at sewer systems the same way that biologists study the human microbiome? Are our sewer systems essentially the “guts” of our communities?
Matus, a computational biologist, studied wastewater epidemiology at MIT. The concept of “sewage as our collective microbiome,” was one she pursued during her doctoral studies. Ghaeli, with training in urban planning and architecture, has long known that the future of humanity is urban — and uncovering smarter ways of harnessing that closeness is necessary if we are to thrive in that future. The pair met thanks to a joint research venture between Matus’ lab and Ghaeli’s department.
Some of Biobot’s first pilot initiatives were concerned with treating one of this country’s most insidious non-viral epidemics — opioids. By analyzing the waste of hard-hit communities, the startup helped local governments identify the type of opioid being used, the general quantity, and the timeframes associated with these variables. Its platform can identify, for example, the difference between prescription opioids and heroin. And it is sensitive enough to detect one dose of particular chemicals within a sample size of 5,000 people.
Biobot conducted its first commercial implementation of its technology with an opioid analytics program in Cary, NC. The company’s analysis gave local officials accurate information on the use of opioids, so they could better lead productive interventions, reducing overdoses by 40% and lowering their associated cost to the healthcare system. Today, seven cities in Massachusetts are conducting initial studies with the Biobot opioid product. The startup is also exploring Hepatitis C pilot programs.
Biobot is built to respond to the public health priority of the moment, without changing the physical sampling device within the sewer systems. It can just as easily compile and analyze data to combat addiction as it can to thwart the next pandemic. And a single of the startup’s samplers can account for varying rates of sewage flow — from groups of 5,000 to up to 20,000. If a community has a larger population, simply deploy more sensors.
As Matus, Ghaeli, and the Biobot team gather more community data, they will begin to build proprietary predictive models tailored to specific public health applications. By merging these predictive models with the dynamic picture of real-time community wellbeing, the team can empower all facets of those communities, from citizens to public health experts and private sector partners, to make decisions that will help save lives today — and tomorrow.
*Photo credit: Webb Chappell for the Boston Globe