What’s the key to gathering more information about epidemics? Looking at sewage, Biobot Analytics Co-founder and CEO Mariana Matus suggests.
Matus first became attuned to the vast data available in sewage while getting her Ph.D. in computational biology at MIT. She and fellow co-founder Newsha Ghaeli made a list of all the things they could track through sewage, from environmental contaminants to infectious disease outbreaks to nutrition. But as the national opioid epidemic gained steam, Biobot Analytic’s first project became clear.
“We saw the important need to be the first company to go out of a university with a mission to transform sewers into public health observatories,” Matus says. “The opportunity that we see is that there’s a lot of valuable data about people’s health and behavior in wastewater. Almost any activity that you can imagine has a footprint in the water that we use, and that goes into this public infrastructure, and nobody’s looking at it.”
Public health officials’ current data-gathering approach to the opioid crisis is “reactive,” Matus explains—it’s largely based on overdoses and hospitalizations.
“We saw an opportunity to provide this real-time feedback to understand what’s happening in communities, to understand what programs are working, to understand where there’s need, and to stay on top of emerging trends,” says Matus.
Since spinning out of MIT, Biobot Analytics has set up shop in Somerville’s Greentown Labs. The company has done research in Cambridge and Boston, and recently was granted permission to study a manhole outside of Greentown Labs. It ran its first full study in Cary, N.C. last year, and in 2019 will work with five to 10 other locations.
Ultimately, Biobot Analytics aims to create a platform that public health officials can utilize in many ways, from telling if a particular community has a spike in lead levels to potentially identifying food deserts.
“We’re very passionate about making an impact on public health and making public health more efficient, more data-driven, more accountable,” Matus says.