To Tackle the Opioid Epidemic, Look to the Sewers

Newsha Ghaeli, president and cofounder of Biobot Analytics, presents during the Civic I/O pitch in Austin, Texas.

Newsha Ghaeli, president and cofounder of Biobot Analytics, presents during the Civic I/O pitch in Austin, Texas. Route Fifty


Connecting state and local government leaders

At a civic tech pitch led held by mayors at SXSW, innovators put forward solutions to pressing problems facing cities.

Cities may soon have maps of opioid use at the neighborhood level, courtesy of their sewer system and a new startup called Biobot Analytics.

Utilizing a product that helps them collect and analyze wastewater on a biweekly basis, the start-up allows cities to take a proactive approach to the opioid crisis, giving clear data on where opioids are being utilized at the neighborhood level.

[WATCH the Full Civic I/O Tech Pitch, a Q&A with the judges and more]

Biobot Analytics is less than six months old, but they wowed a panel of mayors and technical experts, winning the Civic I/O tech pitch at SXSW this week. Newsha Ghaeli, president and cofounder of Biobot Analytics, believes cities can use this “latent intelligence that no one is really tapping into” to figure out what approaches and interventions are working, and redeploy programs and public safety assets around the epidemic in near real-time.

“The current approach is reactively counting extreme cases—overdoses,” Ghaeli told the panel. “We enable this proactive way of understanding consumption from everyone in your city.”

Biobot takes the collected data and can create a dashboard for use across the city, even breaking down what types of opioids used, from prescription pharmaceuticals to heroin, fentanyl, even substitutes like methadone.

With the opioid epidemic decreasing the national life expectancy, overdose deaths becoming a leading cause of adult death and costing the country over $1 trillion—city leaders were paying close attention.

“I’m just fascinated by this whole concept,” Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, a judge during the competition, said when the pitch was done.

Helping cities tackle the opioid crisis may be just the first act for the company. Biobot’s technology and methodology allows it to potentially measure a wide range of what goes through sewers. Ghaeli said she sees an opportunity to look at a number of applications, from helping city leaders “understand disparities in nutrition in the city” to the spread of infectious diseases.

Ultimately, Biobot sees their technology as turning sewers into an “urban health data asset” that will empower city leaders—and public works departments—to better serve citizens.

“The partners that we work with, their public works departments get really excited about this, because they don’t really have the most glamorous job and I think to feel that they are helping, or their infrastructure is helping, one of the most critical urban issues right now, is really a sense of pride,” Ghaeli told the panel of judges. “So it’s been really fun working with the city workers.”

Biobot has been working with the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts over the past few weeks, and will be deploying in Cary, North Carolina in about a month. The company hopes to roll out their solution in five additional cities this year.

ALSO from Route Fifty’s coverage from SXSW 2018:

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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