Business case study: As Covid pandemic arrived, Biobot Analytics found luck favors the prepared
Timing was critical for Cambridge startup Biobot Analytics. “When the pandemic hit, we were prepared,” said Nour Sharara, a 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’s a data trove living in our sewers that can tell us so much about human health and human behavior.”
In 2020, Biobot became the first company to market services detecting the virus causing Covid-19 in wastewater, allowing public health departments and policymakers to anticipate trends in the pandemic – often before they could be predicted any other way, and at relatively low cost. The company was formed in 2017 by Mariana Matus and Newsha Ghaeli based on research they and others had begun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014. Originally the researchers were tracking opioids in wastewater, capturing information about legal and illegal uses to inform public policy.
When the pandemic hit, Biobot pivoted to focus exclusively on data about SARS-CoV-2, the Covid-19 virus. Biobot has now analyzed wastewater samples from more than 700 locations throughout the United States, as well as internationally through the World Bank and other entities. Detecting SARS-CoV-2 in sewage, a novelty only two years ago, is a technology that has spread worldwide rapidly, including to Europe, Asia and South America.
“Oftentimes in public health you have data on individual people,” Sharara said, “but this time you have a birds-eye view of everything happening in the community, and very fast.” Data from wastewater provides an indicator that predicts roughly what is going to happen. For example, peak virus load in the United States was detected in wastewater samples weeks before the number of reported new cases reached a high in January. Also, the Omicron variant was detected in a sewage sample before being detected clinically.
Biobot received some initial funding from The Engine, a venture fund started by MIT. Years later, in October, Biobot raised an additional $20 million in venture capital, bringing the total to almost $30 million. Biobot’s headquarters is 501 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, where The Engine is located.
Biobot has more than 70 employees, more than 60 percent of whom are female, and continues to grow. Openings are listed for a variety of positions. About half the staff is in Cambridge, with the rest distributed across the United States – but all company meetings take place in Cambridge.
One way Massachusetts has benefited from hosting Biobot’s home office is that the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority became one of the first and longest-lasting data sources for tracking the pandemic. There is excellent historical data here, and testing wastewater, while not the only recommended source of data about the pandemic, has become one of the most important. There is even an online COVIDPoops19 dashboard tracking wastewater data from more than 60 nations.
Most Biobot customers are government entities, from state agencies to town boards, although some individual institutions are customers too, 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 as partners. “One reason why customers got onboard so fast,” Sharara said, “is because they routinely collect wastewater samples; this was not anything new. Within three minutes they understand because they do this every day.”
How it works
Biobot sends customers kits with three small test tubes. Those are filled at the wastewater treatment plant and returned to Biobot, which provides results within one business day. Prices start at $350 per sample, providing a snapshot of a whole community; gathering data on individuals is far more expensive. Customers can decide to test sewage weekly or more often.
Biobot also does genomic sequencing on wastewater samples and provides an overview of the variants that are present, some of which, like Omicron, are known to spread more rapidly. “When you’re mayor, for instance, you get this lead time, and you can do what you have to do very quickly to prevent further spread,” Sharara said. Because many public testing sites are closing and the results of home rapid tests are not reported in official statistics, “it’s even more important that we track the data in this phase of the pandemic.”
There is great potential to use wastewater to track a variety of pathogens besides SARS-CoV-2. Biobot conducted a pilot project on seasonal influenza, 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 just scratching the surface” with the Covid-19 virus. Cambridge is considering whether to use wastewater data to examine other public health indicators.
Biobot must balance its current needs with investing in research for the future, though. Research never stops for the company, whether it’s about improving data analysis, better data visualization or detecting new pathogens, Sharara said.
Sharara first learned about the company in 2015 while completing her Masters in Public Health degree at Harvard. Newsha Ghaeli, one of Biobot’s co-founders, was telling students about a new data set acquired by putting robots into sewers; that information was still so novel that Sharara thought, “Hang on; I just finished an MPH and never heard about sewers as a source of population health information.” The master’s degree students were taught about sewage as a vector of disease, but not yet as an information source.
Sharara kept in touch with the company and joined Biobot after the pandemic emerged. “I have to say, I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to work on something that has been so helpful for the communities that I care about, that is so innovative and really makes a difference,” she said.