An interview with Keith Cole, CEO of Water Lens.

The source of Water Lens

I was looking for opportunities and I saw a lot of people trying to treat water from the oil and gas industry – also known as produced water and it is unpleasant to say the least – as well as difficult to treat. What I noticed was that nobody was trying to test it – if you are going to treat something, you need to know what is in it.

You could send samples to labs, but they take days or even weeks to send results back. Furthermore, to do true water analytics, you need rapid, even real-time data. Getting answers weeks down the line does not do you any good.

The idea was that if we had a reliable, accurate way to test water quality on location, then you could do better, more accurate analytics on that data to trend your operations.

In the oil & gas industry a lot of water is used, which corrodes, scales, infects operations, and interferes with chemicals. The same applies over in maritime – such as the project we did with Vopak during the 2020 PortXL program – cleaning vessels, ballast water etc. and for municipalities for the wastewater treatment or any industry really.

Not waiting on a lab to tell you whether your water is safe to discharge can save a lot of time and money. It is not just about saving the time but reducing or eliminating the impact of poor water quality on your operations and the environment.

We provide a rapid and accurate test, as our system can cut through interferences from chemicals. Then we take that data and layer on machine-learning algorithms to adjust the sensors and provide reliable, consistent, accurate data.

Water Lens started with the oil & gas industry in Houston, Texas [USA], and we have been doing that for 4 years, with 4 years of R&D beforehand. In early 2020 through PortXL we made our move into maritime, and we are engaged in a pilot in Italy for the electric utility industry.

Since the advent of Covid-19 we have been focused on wastewater and COVID-19 screenings for companies and government facilities.

Applying rapid bacteria testing to the Covid-19 pandemic

When Covid-19 came around the World shut down for a bit – still sort of is – we thought that what we were ultimately doing with wastewater was testing RNA/DNA, and we felt that we could tweak it to detect Covid-19.

Our approach was to develop a saliva test, which can be easily taken in the field and enable you to get results within 40 minutes as to whether you did or did not you have Covid-19. This is not an antigen-type test that is meant to detect COVID-19 when you are far along in the process. Our saliva test is very sensitive and can detect COVID-19 in the earliest stages of the illness (symptomatic or not), which is more effective than rapid tests because they have less sensitivity.

Saliva tests have the added benefit of pooled testing, where you can have one test for a group of people and determine if anyone is infected. Naturally after a positive outcome, further tests must be conducted individually, but for schools, corporate campuses, governmental buildings (places where the same people tend to be around each other day-to-day) this is an ideal solution to keep the virus out of the facility. Pooled testing enables you to screen a lot of people and do it inexpensively (under $1 per person) because the cost of one test can be applied to a dozen or more people.

As we were developing our saliva test, we saw an article in March about Dutch research group that had detected Covid-19 in sewage. At our core, we are an industrial water analytics company, and that was our cue to move into the wastewater industry.

The test samples – courtesy of Water Lens

Jumping into sewage

It took us several months, but we developed a system that is fast and efficient while being easier and less costly than the traditional way of testing wastewater. We have been working with the city of Houston for the last five months and tested the equivalent of 40 million people through epidemiology. That is the power of wastewater/sewage epidemiology; you can get real-time view of infection rates in your community by locale (initially by wastewater treatment plant and then by lift station and manhole covers).

Houston, we have a problem… and a solution

Houston published a study where they were able to find a particular low-income shelter that was having a Covid-19 outbreak through wastewater monitoring. They went there, tested everybody and quarantined the place to avoid any further spread of the virus. A testament to the power of the sewage tests: it gives you that advance warning. Wastewater monitoring allows you to get a picture of where your issues are, and you can then attack them cost-effectively.

Ultimately, our test is not expensive: $300 per sample. A small/medium sized city might spend about $3000 – $4000 a month and avoid much larger healthcare costs. Also, the city can then deploy its limited tests and vaccine resources to the communities within its boundaries that are having the most difficulty with the virus in order to more cost-effectively stop the spread and have the largest impact. We could probably charge a lot more than $300 per sample, but we are making a fair profit at that level, and we do not wish to profiteer off a global pandemic. Additionally, you do not want to make the solution so expensive that it cannot be used – you want to make it inexpensive so they everyone can use it.

What’s next for Water Lens?

Wastewater epidemiology is here to stay, and it is going to be a big part of our business. Following our successful pilot in Houston, we have both approached and been approached by other cities, states, and the US Federal government about our COVID-19 solutions.

We have been able to adapt our system for both large and small cities and businesses.

While we all hope the vaccine is effective enough to allow us all to return to normal, that is looking less likely as we see more and more variants. So, it is likely that Covid-19 will be around for quite a long time (to one degree or another). But even if it is not around for long, there are many other diseases to monitor for in wastewater: drug use, flu, hepatises, the plague, meningitis, etc. – plenty of viruses and diseases. Houston was monitoring wastewater for polio back in the 1950’s. So, while this is not a new science, modern scientific methods (and the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic) have made it a burgeoning field of science and public health. My view is that Covid-19 has raised wastewater epidemiology to a level where it has high visibility in a public health perspective, where it will stay for a long time to come. I also hope that as we come out of this pandemic, cities, states, and countries will continue to monitor wastewater for many diseases. And when the next potential pandemic comes around, the DNA can be quickly sequenced, and tests developed so that every community can catch the next virus before it can spread around the globe.

Discover more about Water Lens via the video below: