A Biobot wastewater sampling kit. (Photo: Biobot Analytics)

Timing was critical for Cambridge startup Biobot Analytics. “When the pandemic hit, we were ready,” said Nour Sharara, public health scientist at Biobot, who spoke via Zoom on April 21. “We didn’t know there would be a pandemic, but the vision was already there that there is a treasure trove of data living in our sewers that can tell us a lot about human health and human behavior.

Sharara

In 2020, Biobot became the first company to commercialize services for detecting the virus that causes Covid-19 in wastewater, enabling public health departments and policy makers to anticipate pandemic trends – often before they can be predicted otherwise, and at relatively low cost. The company was founded in 2017 by Mariana Matus and Newsha Ghaeli based on research they and others started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014. Researchers originally tracked opioids in waters used, collecting information on legal and illegal uses to inform public policy.

When the pandemic hit, Biobot pivoted to focus exclusively on data regarding SARS-CoV-2, the Covid-19 virus. Biobot has now analyzed wastewater samples from more than 700 sites across the United States, as well as internationally through the World Bank and other entities. The detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, a novelty only two years ago, is a technology that has spread rapidly around the world, especially in Europe, Asia and South America.

“A lot of times in public health you have data on individual people,” Sharara said, “but this time you have the big picture of everything that’s happening in the community, and very quickly.” Wastewater data provides an indicator that roughly predicts what will happen. For example, the peak viral load in the United States was detected in sewage samples weeks before the number of new reported cases peaked in January. Additionally, the Omicron variant was detected in a sewage sample before it was detected clinically.

Chart comparing sewage data with COVID-19 cases in the US (Image: Biobot Analytics)

Business growth

Biobot received seed funding from The Engine, a venture capital fund launched by MIT. Years later, in October, Biobot raised another $20 million in venture capital, bringing the total to nearly $30 million. Biobot’s headquarters are located at 501 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, where The Engine is located.

Central Square’s The Engine venture capital fund gave Biobot seed funding — and an address. (Photo: Andy Zucker)

Biobot has over 70 employees, over 60% of whom are women, and continues to grow. Openings are listed for a variety of positions. About half the staff are in Cambridge, with the rest spread across the United States, but all company meetings are held in Cambridge.

One of the ways Massachusetts has benefited from hosting Biobot’s headquarters is that the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has become one of the earliest and most enduring sources of data for tracking the pandemic. There is great historical data here, and the sewage test, while not the only recommended data source on the pandemic, has become one of the most important. There’s even a COVIDPoops19 online dashboard tracking wastewater data from over 60 countries.

Newsha Ghaeli, left, and Mariana Matus are co-founders of Biobot. (Photo: Biobot Analytics)

Most of Biobot’s customers are government entities, from state agencies to city councils, although some individual institutions are also customers, such as colleges, universities, and long-term care facilities. Often the health department and a wastewater treatment plant — of which there are about 15,000 in the United States — work in partnership. “One of the reasons customers got on board so quickly,” Sharara said, “is that they regularly collect sewage samples; it was not something new. In three minutes, they understand because they do this every day.

How it works

Biobot sends its customers kits with three small test tubes. These are completed at the treatment plant and returned to Biobot, which provides the results within one business day. Pricing starts at $350 per sample, providing insight into an entire community; collecting data on individuals is much more expensive. Customers can decide to test wastewater weekly or more often.

Biobot also does genomic sequencing on sewage samples and provides insight into the variants present, some of which, like Omicron, are known to spread faster. “When you’re mayor, for example, you get that time frame and you can do what you have to do very quickly to prevent further spread,” Sharara said. With many public testing sites closing and rapid home test results not being reported in official statistics, “it’s even more important that we track data in this phase of the pandemic.”

There is great potential for using wastewater to track a variety of pathogens in addition to SARS-CoV-2. Biobot conducted a seasonal flu pilot, successfully detecting the virus in sewage. There are noroviruses, enteric pathogens such as salmonella, and dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to name a few candidates for detection in wastewater. According to Sharara, “we are only scratching the surface” with the Covid-19 virus. Cambridge plans to use wastewater data to look at other public health indicators.

However, Biobot must find a balance between its current needs and invest in research for the future. Research never stops for the company, whether it’s improving data analysis, better visualizing data or detecting new pathogens, Sharara said.

Shararaexperience

Sharara first discovered the company in 2015 while completing her master’s degree in public health at Harvard. Newsha Ghaeli, one of Biobot’s co-founders, was talking to students about a new dataset acquired by putting robots in sewers; this information was still so new that Sharara thought, “Wait; I just finished an MPH and have never heard of sewers as a source of population health information. Masters students have been trained on wastewater as a vector of disease, but not yet as a source of information.

Sharara stayed in touch with the company and joined Biobot after the pandemic emerged. “I have to say, I’m so grateful to have been able to work on something that’s been so helpful to the communities I care about, is so innovative, and really makes a difference,” she said.


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