Founded in 2017 by Mariana Matus, a computational biologist, and Newsha Ghaeli, an urban studies researcher, Boston-based “wastewater epidemiology” startup Biobot Analytics was battle-tested in 2020. The company—which uses genomic and chemical assays and data analytics to detect viruses, bacteria, and chemical metabolites flushed into a community’s waste stream—started out testing municipal sewage systems for spikes in opioid drug use. But when COVID-19 hit, it rapidly devised a method for finding the virus in sewage, and its business exploded. More than 400 cities, universities, and corporate campuses have used Biobot’s testing and analysis program, the most widely used in the country. Through wastewater, the company has tested over 10% of the U.S. population, including the catchment area of the greater Boston area, covering some 2 million people. Biobot’s COVID-19 testing service (customers get sampling kits that are shipped back to the company’s lab, with results available in as soon as a day) has allowed towns and cities to accurately predict surges in new infection. “Wastewater largely captures people who just got infected,” says Matus. “That’s when they’re shedding the most virus in poop but may not show symptoms. The beauty of this application is that you see the spike a week before you see it in the clinic.”
Since closing a $4.2 million seed round last April, the company has grown from 5 to 25 as people, almost all working remotely. “Most of us have never seen each other in person,” says Matus, who has used virtual company lunches, trivia nights, and cheese tastings to build culture remotely. After giving birth to her first child in mid-November—four weeks early—Matus was on a couple months’ maternity leave. “The past year has been very challenging for everybody,” she says. “But seeing that our work helped even a little bit motivated us to get through a lot of work even when we were tired.”
The company’s next project is to launch testing for influenza in wastewater. “I hope when COVID goes away we don’t forget how useful the technology is, and that next time we don’t get to this point,” Matus says. “Our mission is to stop outbreaks before they become epidemics.”
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