Untapping the life-changing secrets in sewage
Untap’s almost real-time Covid monitoring could transform how we live with viruses
Well then, here we go… welcome to the first proper edition of PreSeed Now! Every Tuesday and Thursday we’ll be publishing a newsletter like this.
When I heard about today’s startup, I just knew they had to be the first we featured. They’re doing something potentially transformative for the way we live with Covid-19 and other transmissible illnesses in the future. Also, launching with a ‘SewageTech’ startup (there’s a new bit of lingo I just coined for you), is certainly a statement of intent that shows it’s not going to be all fintech and A.I. around here, although there will be plenty of that too.
I’m keen to make sure PreSeed Now serves subscribers well and that reading it becomes a regular part of your working week. With that in mind, my inbox is always open to feedback.
Ones to watch
As PreSeed Now develops, we’ll be dedicating this space to mentioning interesting startups we don’t have time or scope to cover in more detail, adding value to your subscription and spotlighting more startups worthy of a look.
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Untap’s almost real-time Covid monitoring could transform how we live with viruses
If you’ve been paying attention to how authorities around the world keep tabs on Covid levels, you might have heard about studies that test wastewater for traces of the virus. Given that not everyone tests themselves regularly (or properly - have you really stuck that swab far enough up your nose? I’m never sure), the virus levels in wastewater can give a good indication of the number of currently infected people in a building.
No surprise, then, that companies are coming up with solutions to help building operators understand Covid levels among the people who use their spaces. One such business is London-based startup Untap.
Billed as a Covid-19 early-warning system to “detect and reduce the prevalence in your community, without regular lateral flow testing,” Untap has developed a small, internet-connected box that sits next to where the wastewater leaves your building to the sewer system, sucking up regular samples of water and applying continual PCR testing to those samples.
The box sends the results to Untap, which then turns them into a report that gives the building operator a low, medium, or high risk level based on the approximate number of infected individuals using the building. The risk levels allow them to adjust their Covid response based on up-to-date data. Depending on the risk level, they might need to increase ventilation, reduce room capacities, or implement social distancing and mask mandates, for example.
Untap co-founder Claire Trant explains that the startup plans to target care homes first. Aside from the obvious need to closely monitor Covid levels more than many other workplaces, they tend to have standalone buildings, which means Untap can monitor their wastewater without confusing it with that of other tenant businesses. And with homeworking not an option, and the cost of temporary staff to replace sick workers often expensive, cost-conscious care homes have a strong impetus to closely monitor Covid levels.
“Everything is in the box, no humans involved,” says Trant. “The only requirement is once every three months it needs to be serviced. So we go in, we add some more chemicals… but that's a short-term thing.” Untap plans to extend the time between services as the product is developed further.
It’s worth noting this isn’t quite a finished product yet. Trant says the water testing process in the box has four stages, all of which have been developed, although the full automated process across all four stages is currently in development. And the startup says it has received Innovate UK funding to develop the internet connectivity for the box. As WiFi and mobile data signals can sometimes struggle to reach the part of a building where the wastewater flows out to the sewer, Untap is exploring LoRaWAN as a solution.
The joy of sewage
So how has Untap fared in testing? It certainly seems to be working as the early-warning system it’s billed as. The first trial, in an office, detected Covid before it spread among the workforce, Trant says.
A second trial, in a factory, backed up the findings from the first. “We were able to detect Covid. They were lateral-flow testing the whole building at exactly the same time, so we were able to correlate our data with theirs,” says Trant. “However, one time we found Covid when they didn't find Covid, and we found out that they had external visitors on site. Their auditors were there; they hadn't been lateral-flow testing them and they all had Covid. So they had to send their auditors home.
“Currently we’re in a care home and we've been able to tell them they’re Covid-free and they've taken their masks off, which is nice when you think about the sort of interactions you're having in a care home.”
(I never expected to launch this newsletter with an article that includes a quote that begins ‘the joy of sewage is…’, but here we are…)
“The joy of sewage is you can detect not just symptomatic people, but asymptomatic people and pre-symptomatic people,” says Trant. “And because we can catch [Covid] pre-symptoms, we can let a community know before there are multiple people with Covid.
“We usually actually only catch one or two people, then they lateral-flow test everyone, then they send those people home, and then we detect zero.”
Trant envisages a world in the near future where regular Covid testing is replaced by passive monitoring from solutions like Untap, which allow for targeted responses to outbreaks. Untap plans to monitor for other pathogens like flu and MRSA, which means it could become a broader way for businesses to monitor the health of their workforce in a simple, unobtrusive and anonymous way.
Virus awareness as a service
Trant was a wastewater engineering consultant during the early days of the pandemic and saw the inefficient and “pretty gross” ways that wastewater testing was being conducted for government studies into Covid levels in the community. Her Untap co-founder, Jay Bullen, has a PhD from Imperial College London, during which he developed low-cost methods to combat arsenic-contaminated water in Mexico and India.
The pair met when they both took part in Entrepreneur First, and they decided to seize the opportunity to develop a commercial Covid-testing programme to help businesses take control of their virus response.
Untap plans to offer three subscription pricing tiers. The first will offer a daily estimate of the number of people in the building with Covid, based on aggregate throughout the day. “That’s going to be the most cost-effective to go to market with, and also the simplest for us to build,” says Trant.
A second tier planned for later in the year would offer two sets of results per day (morning and afternoon) for both Covid and flu. A real-time, ongoing monitoring solution for three biomarkers (such as Covid, flu, and MRSA) is planned later for hospitals.
Untap’s closest competition is Biobot Analytics, a startup from Y Combinator’s winter 2018 cohort, which raised a $20m series A round last year. US-based Biobot’s approach is similar to Untap, but requires the customer to physically mail samples to the startup, rather than all testing happening automatically on site. In addition to being slower than Untap, at $350 per sample for Covid testing it clearly works out way more expensive than what Untap plans, if regular testing is important to you.
Living smarter with viruses
Assuming Untap can polish its product so that it is entirely automated and requires only occasional servicing, and deploy it widely, it could transform our relationship with viruses. The startup’s first big challenge in achieving that is to bring the first version product to market, offering automated daily testing. It intends to do that this summer.
In a world where automated, frequent virus testing in wastewater is common, there could be less ‘flying blind’ about levels of infection in a building. That would let the people in that community adjust their behaviour dynamically, reduce the number of sick days taken, and keep us all safer.
Untap has already raised a friends and family round of around €200,000 alongside £60,000 of Innovate UK grant funding. In addition to taking on two team members, Trant and Bullen have used this funding to run the startup’s trials to date and to have the equipment it has developed tested for quality by Imperial College London.
Untap is currently raising a pre-seed round.
That’s all for now
PreSeed Now will be back on Thursday with another fascinating startup. Let me know what you thought of today’s edition. And if you know a team building something great, please put me in touch - just drop me a line.