MIT spin-out raises $4.2m to track Covid-19 in wastewater

27 Apr 2020317 Views

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Biobot Analytics has developed a platform that examines samples of wastewater to provide public health insights.

Biobot Analytics, a Massachusetts-based start-up that was spun out of MIT, has raised $4.2m for its analytics technology that monitors wastewater to offer public health insights at a community level.

Founded by Dr Mariana Matus and Newsha Ghaeli, the start-up hopes to use the funding to see if the company can track the spread of Covid-19 and map prevalence of the disease in US cities. To date, the start-up has raised a total of $6.7m in seed funding.

The latest funding round was led by MIT spin-out venture firm The Engine, which invests in early-stage tech companies solving urgent problems through science and engineering.

There was also participation from the AmFam Institute Impact Fund, as well as Y Combinator and DCVC. The start-up said that the fresh funding will support the rapid growth of its operations to address pandemic challenges, while funding product development and market expansion.

Analysing waste samples at population level

Co-founders Matus and Ghaeli combined their expertise in computational biology, wastewater epidemiology and urban planning to develop the technology, which aims to provide sub-city-level human health data.

The start-up collects anonymous data from sewage to trace health indicators that provide insights into drug use, the presence of viruses, environmental contaminants and nutrition.

From left: Mariana Matus and Newsha Ghaeli. Image: Biobot Analytics

Matus, who is CEO of Biobot Analytics, said: “Doctors use waste samples regularly to understand, diagnose and care for our individual wellbeing. We are deploying our technology to do the same at population level.”

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She said that this data can be “tremendously valuable” to government and private sector partners and “will be core to public health improvement and the development of smart cities”.

The start-up conducted its first commercial implementation of the technology with an opioid analytics programme in Cary, North Carolina. Its analysis gave local officials information on the use of opioids in the town, enabling authorities to prepare productive interventions.

Biobot Analytics said that this reduced overdoses and lowered the associated cost to the healthcare system. Now seven cities in Massachusetts are using the technology to get a better understanding of opioid use in the state.

Tracking Covid-19

In a recent interview with Forbes, Matus said: “The power of wastewater is that it takes into account everyone and it gives everyone a voice.”

As Covid-19 is shed within stool, the team developed a way to identify, replicate and measure the concentration of the viral RNA in a given wastewater sample.

It takes the company five days to analyse the data, but Biobot Analytics said it hopes to refine its model to address different challenges and variations on concentration.

In March, Biobot Analytics collaborated with researchers at MIT, Harvard and others to launch a campaign to solicit wastewater from facilities across the US to study Covid-19 in wastewater. The start-up’s research protocol and findings from an initial review of these samples can be read in this paper.

Later this month, the start-up plans to release national data spanning 100 different locations in the US.

Kelly Earley is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

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