The Answer to Public Health Crises Might Be in the Sewer

Biobot Analytics extracts health data from the sewer system.

September 14, 2017
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by Jamie Ducharme, Boston Magazine

Newsha Ghaeli and Mariana Matus’ big idea doesn’t exactly sound glamorous—but it might just revolutionize the way we handle public health issues.

Ghaeli, an MIT research fellow, and Matus, an MIT Ph.D. candidate, are the founders of Biobot Analytics, a startup that seeks to bring cities extensive, proactive public health data by capitalizing on the treasure trove of data hiding in urban sewer systems.

By analyzing samples from the sewer, Ghaeli says, Biobot is adapting individualized methods of studying the human microbiome “to the urban scale, and really looking at the sewer system as being analogous to the human gut. Everything’s naturally aggregating there, it’s naturally anonymized. It’s just a matter of getting it out and bringing it back to the lab.”

If you’re still skeptical, you’re not alone. Matus remembers pitching the idea to members of her lab, and initially hearing crickets. “Everybody in the lab was like, ‘Oh that’s just a silly idea, it’s never going to work, who would want to do that?” she remembers.

Fast-forward a little, though, and the duo—who just completed the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship’s Delta V accelerator program, which trains students to think and work like entrepreneurs—has brought on a number of additional staff members, and secured a 12-week pilot program with an as-yet-unannounced city in the Northeast. The company also recently deployed a prototype sampler in Cambridge, and has at least five other partner cities in the sales pipeline. The product is targeted toward cities of 100,000 people or more, and would take samples from areas with at least 4,000 residents to ensure both anonymity and scope of data.

Read the full article at Boston Magazine