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This sewer-diving robot is taking aim at the opioid crisis using wastewater analysis

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CAMBRIDGE, MA (Circa) – The solution to the opioid crisis might come from wastewater data that shows what drugs are being used where – in real-time.

"Every time we go to the bathroom, we are flushing away information about our behavior and about our health," Biobot Co-Founder and CEO Mariana Matus told Circa. "What happens if we look at the microbiome of a city through our collective gut?"

A seemingly simple question and a devastating epidemic led Matus and co-founder Newsha Ghaeli to launch their biotech startup. Now, Biobot Analytics is combining science and technology to help communities combat the opioid epidemic.

Their robotic device scours sewers for information that cities can use.

The way Biobot’s team sees it, sewers are the underbelly of modern metropolises, rural and urban, and are a treasure trove of untapped data. "What we do is we analyze city sewage to estimate opioid consumption," Matus said.

Their technology not only stands to combat an epidemic that has been labeled a national health emergency by President Donald Trump, but it also has potential to become an integral smart city solution. At this point, the Cambridge, Mass.-based team is using their water analysis to look for opioids, but it can be manipulated to extrapolate other data.

"What makes this so unique, is that it's one of the very, very few smart cities solutions that's really touching on something very, very fundamental," Ghaeli, who is also president of Biobot Analytics, added. "Something that actually can change the quality of city life for good and for people and for residents."

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A seemingly simple question and a devastating epidemic led to the launch of biotech startup Biobot Analytics. (Circa)

With more biotech brands finding their start in Cambridge, Biobot has been able to lean on fellow startups like Nest.Bio Labs and Startsomething for help developing and fine-tuning their prototype.

"These basically start as a very tough box that’s very rugged, so it’s waterproof and what not," Joshua Dittrich, founder of small-batch manufacturing startup Startsomething, told Circa. His company specializes in helping young businesses with product design and construction.

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A series of pumps, filters and sensors inside the box grab the wastewater samples they need, which are then sent off to the lab for testing.

"In our process here that we developed for Biobot, we’re actually in some sense purifying the water, but we’re designing it to actually only take the opioids out so we can have a nice spectrum of what drugs may be in the sewer," Dittrich said, likening the process Biobot uses to a water filtration system.

The city of Cambridge has given Biobot a green light to conduct practice runs deploying their device in search of sewage samples. Each deployment takes 24 hours while the device gathers samples. The lab samples are processed using a technique called mass spectrometry, which put simply, means that the masses within a mixture are being measured.

Getting ahead of crises

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, 115 Americans are dying from drug overdoses each day.

Biobot’s pitch to cities is that, if sifted well, wastewater can help them get ahead of crises. With Biobot’s device, cities an measure the health of their communities and tackle issues, such as opioids, more effectively.

"This data could be useful to help any community assess the epidemic locally, understand within the city where they should be directing resources, educational programming," Ghaeli explained. "And then, in the long-term, use this to continuously monitor the efficacy of their response."

The plan is to provide cities with the test results and allow them to make of the data what they will. Armed with information about what types of drugs are being and where, cities will be able to outline new standards for assessing crises. From creating opioid task forces and targeted addiction prevention campaigns to adding needle exchanges and naloxone pick-up locations (naloxone is the generic version the opioid antidote drug), city officials can make strategic decisions for dealing with the opioid epidemic in their community.

Now, with the data they’re compiling, how granular can they really get? Translation: Will they be able to identify who's excretion they're analyzing?

In theory, yes, but in practice, Biobot has strict rules and parameters for how they will carry out their research.

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"In our case, we first start by defining the sub-areas of a city that we're going to be looking at, and we define them such that they always represent at least 5,000 people," Matus said. "The value of this data is for it to be a quick way to assess the health of many people together."

Matus also pointed out the samples they collect from sewers are already all mixed up, meaning private matters naturally remain anonymous.

Looking to the past to map out the future

The startup inked its first official partnership with Cary, North Carolina, to begin pilot testing their device and has gotten nearly two dozen other requests from cities wanting to team up.

Biobot was also accepted into Y Combinator, the selective Silicon Valley seed accelerator behind Airbnb, Dropbox and Instacart.

While not by design, something that does make Biobot stand out, is that their small staff is comprised entirely of women. At a time when only a fraction of the 47 percent of women who make up the American workforce hold jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, Biobot's startup story is no small feat.

"So far there haven't been too many female co-founder, or female-led startups, so we are just very excited to be an example of that," Matus said. And women are lining up to join their team.

"It seems like a lot of very, very incredible women, who are very successful or just very brilliant in their field, are also excited about the fact that this is a female-run team," Ghaeli added.

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Biobot Analytics' robotic device scours sewers for information on opioids that cities can use. (Circa)

To look ahead, Biobot is looking behind. Matus’ childhood inspired the idea to possibly take their tech to areas in the developing world where epidemics are common.

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"I grew up in a very arid region in Mexico where we didn't receive drinking water at home anymore," Matus explained. It was distributed through pipe trucks to the neighborhood. She's drawn on this experience to inform her work, in this case, the power of water and potential of wastewater.

Wastewater can be a rich resource of information and has been utilized in parts of Asia and Africa to study and contain polio virus outbreaks. She points to these examples to show the vast potential of Biobot's tools and how they could be leveraged to "really help people have an early warning of a new disease outbreak and help the governments react more nimbly."

"I always had been very fascinated and passionate about combining that world of water and wastewater with the potential of biology as a tool," she said. "And to me, this is a great way to give wastewater a new use."

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