When talking with entrepreneurs Mariana Matus and Newsha Ghaeli about poop, things can veer into the philosophical.
“The behavior of a city is imprinted in its sewage,” Ghaeli says. “It’s like the fingerprints of our health.”
Their company, Biobot Analytics, has met the pandemic moment. What started as a research idea at MIT, focusing on how waste water data can help mitigate the spread of disease, has turned into something bigger. Now, it’s a fast-growing startup — with over 65 employees and millions in funding — that has contracted with over 700 towns, across every state in the country, to study their sewage and help policy makers predict how bad the coronavirus could get in their communities.
And in a sign that it’s gone mainstream, the charts they make, outlining COVID levels in a city’s sewage data, often light Twitter on fire.
“It’s just been wild,” Matus, the company’s CEO, says. “I love the fact that regular people are engaging with the data.”
Walk into Biobot’s lab space in Central Square on a weekday around 10 a.m., and you’ll be greeted by a FedEx delivery driver dropping off between 50 to 80 boxes of sewage samples from across the country, ready for testing. Once the samples are analyzed, the company churns out data showing the concentration of coronavirus in a municipality’s sewage. (Biobot charges $350 per sample.)
The data is powerful for a few reasons: For health officials, it confirms whether COVID spikes in the community are real, and not due to increased testing or other factors. Moreover, COVID levels in waste water are a leading indicator for new clinical cases, giving health officials a few days’ notice if they’ll see more sick patients showing symptoms.
How that data gets used is up to Biobot’s clients. Last year, when the city of Cambridge, for example, saw its waste water data (along with one other data set) go above a certain level, it moved school to virtual classes. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker looks at Biobot data “on a daily basis” and uses it as “part of the intelligence that goes into making policy decisions at the state level,” Matus says.
The company was founded in 2017 while both founders were at MIT. Matus, who grew up in Mexico City and wanted to help cities become environmentally friendly, was a doctoral candidate in the waste water epidemiology lab with Professor Eric Alm. In Cambridge, she met Ghaeli, who hailed from Canada and was working as a research fellow in Professor Carlo Ratti’s lab, a pioneer in studying technology’s impact on urban planning. (Ghaeli is the company’s president.)
Originally, the Biobot founders focused on using waste water data to help municipalities stem opioid overdoses. But when the pandemic hit, they quickly pivoted, and built a test to gauge the levels of COVID in waste water in a few weeks. They became the first group in the nation that could measure COVID in waste water, and the second globally.
These days, in between WhatsApp messages filled with new baby pictures and updates of their weekend adventures, the duo spend up to 12 hours a day together in meetings, on Slack, and in Zoom sessions, hyper-focused on navigating the company’s rapid growth, and deciding where to head next.
Their data seems to be everywhere now. Prominent health experts like Dr. Ashish Jha cite waste water data regularly to point out what the next few weeks might look like for hospitals. And the founders have started getting wider interest from investors and policy makers. In October 2021, they raised $20 million, bringing their total funding haul to nearly $30 million.
As for the future, they are looking to create a world where municipalities analyze waste water for more than just COVID-19.
“Imagine what we can learn,” Matus says. “Imagine what we can prevent.”