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Analytics Startup Uses Robots to Improve Wastewater Systems

Wastewater can be a rich source of data on a region’s health, and Biobot Analytics has created small robotic devices that travel through sewers and capture real-time data on chemicals, pathogens and more.

While largely forgotten after it’s flushed down the drain, wastewater is a rich source of untapped data that can tell you a lot about the health of your city, neighborhood by neighborhood. In fact, a new gov tech startup is capturing and analyzing this rawest of raw data at the intersection of public health and public works.

Born of graduate research in wastewater epidemiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mariana Matus and Newsha Ghaeli combined their respective disciplines — computational biology and urban science — to better understand cities as ecosystems through the use of near real-time data. For her part, Ghaeli told an interviewer that “she never thought it would become a company.” But it did. And 2018 was a strong debut year for Biobot Analytics.

To unpack its name in reverse order, the big data it produces is the analytics. The second half of the first name refers to robotics — particularly the bots about the size of carry-on luggage that the company lowers into sewer systems to capture local sewage near the source. (The founders concede it is easier to collect centrally but the human excretions begin to break down by the time they reach a sewage treatment plant.) That brings us to bio — namely the man-made chemicals (xenobiotics) we consume and subsequently excrete into the sewer system.

In a country that produces 30 billion gallons of wastewater a day, the possibilities for epidemiology are limitless. Scientists can see how a place is doing by studying what we leave, including markers for certain illnesses, chemical exposure, viruses and other pathogens, emerging contaminants in our food and personal care products. Then there is the ability to track and analyze drug use — both prescription and illicit — through which Biobot is providing fast, accurate and anonymous screening of wastewater for partnering cities. It is a powerful tool that fundamentally redefines crappy data as a good thing.

Earlier this year, Ghaeli told Governing (GT’s sister publication) that mayors, whose interests are citywide and not confined to a single agency, intuitively understand the power of the data in city efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and help officials understand where public funding needs to go.

On the way to winning an audience in front of 600 chief city executives at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, she told a panel, “This rich source of human health information aggregates in our public sewers — an infrastructure that you own, you maintain and you manage.”

As a fledgling business, Biobot earned early support from General Catalyst’s student-funding program, Rough Draft Ventures, and in May raised $2.5 million in first-round seed funding through Chicago venture firm Ekistic Ventures.

Its future includes a throwback moment to its origins as an MIT grad school project operating in Kuwait and South Korea. Biobot is nominated for the 2018 World Summit Awards, an international competition formed to help realize the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Winners will be announced this month.

Underlying all this science, technology and audacious public health goals is the relationship between Biobot’s founders. Ghaeli told the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, “I’m excited about starting [and growing this] company with another woman, especially in a field that touches on some male-dominated spheres.”

Spoiler Alert: Biobot’s first-year success also makes it a very strong candidate for the fourth annual GovTech 100, due out in the next issue of Government Technology.

Paul W. Taylor is the Senior Editor of e.Republic Editorial and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.