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Water

Mariana Matus means to combat the opioid epidemic with chemical data

Her company, Biobot Analytics, is analyzing wastewater to give communities the information they need for the battle

by Celia Henry Arnaud
March 8, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 9

09809-feature9-matus.jpg
Credit: Christine Hochkeppel
09809-feature9-matus.jpg
Credit: Christine Hochkeppel

When people flush their toilets, they also flush chemical information about themselves into the sewer—what they ate, what medicines they took, what health conditions they have. Mariana Matus and her colleagues at Biobot Analytics, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, want to help communities capture that information to confront challenges like the opioid epidemic.

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Vitals

Title: CEO, Biobot Analytics

Funding: ~$2.5 million

Investors: DCVC, Ekistic Investments, Homebrew, Hyperplane Venture Capital, Refactor Capital, and Y Combinator

“There isn’t just one opioid epidemic. There are many versions of it and many types of [drug] users,” Matus says. Some people use opioids for pain management, whereas others use them recreationally. By measuring the distribution of opioids coming out of various cities’ wastewater systems, Biobot aims to help public health officials deploy the right counteractive program for each situation.

Biobot grew out of a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cofounders Matus, who is the CEO, and Newsha Ghaeli, who is the president, met during a collaboration between research groups at MIT to use wastewater epidemiology to study the collective microbiomes of cities. Matus, a computational biologist, worked for Eric Alm, a professor of biological engineering. Ghaeli, an architect, worked for Carlo Ratti, a professor of urban technologies and planning.

Through interactions with public health officials during the project, the duo learned that “public health is a field that hasn’t leveraged data science to become more proactive and more targeted and more effective. The best data they have is usually hospital or ambulance reports,” Matus says. But the officials that Matus and Ghaeli talked with “were really curious about all the data we were collecting,” Matus adds. “We realized that we could be the first ones to extract these data and offer it to them as a service to inform their work.”

When it came time for Matus and Ghaeli to leave MIT, they decided that they would create their own jobs rather than search for them.

“We are very fortunate because MIT has invested a lot in entrepreneurship resources for students,” Matus says. “It was easy to start because there were a lot of programs that teach you the basics, connect you to mentors, and give you small money so you can start doing things.”

Biobot has raised about $2.5 million so far. According to Matthew Ocko, a managing partner at DCVC, one of the venture capital firms that has put money into the company, investing in Matus and Ghaeli early on was attractive because they “were applying novel but pragmatic technology to address a huge set of costly societal problems, including runaway opiate addiction, profitably and yet equitably.” Moreover, he says, “Mariana and Newsha were each driven, smart, dedicated people who clearly worked well together as a founding team.”

Established in 2017, Biobot got a fast start when officials from Cary, North Carolina, found the company online while searching for someone to measure opioids in the town’s wastewater. Biobot’s pilot project in Cary started in the summer of 2018.

Matus and other Biobot scientists first used data analysis to determine the best places to sample wastewater in the town without infringing on the privacy of individual residents. Then they put sampling devices down into sewer manholes, later removed the devices’ cartridges, and analyzed their samples with liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry.

From the data it collected, Biobot determined the distribution of prescription opioids being used across the town. Officials are still mulling how to apply the results but have already used the baseline data to run an educational campaign in Cary about prescription opioids and safe disposal. And the town experienced a drop in the number of opioid overdoses. Biobot continues to provide Cary with monthly monitoring data.

Biobot is now pushing forward with a set of pilot studies in seven municipalities in Massachusetts. From there, Matus hopes the company will continue to expand its geographic reach.

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