Digital water technologies specialist Camnexus has developed technology which can also be used to detect coronavirus bacteria in water.
Camnexus, an entrant in the Cambridge Independent 2020 Science & Technology Awards, is a University of Cambridge spin-out and is currently on the Allia Future 20 incubator as well as being an ‘inclusive innovation cultivator’ at the Centre for Global Equality.
The company’s technology transfer platform is in use in Latin America and Africa: its low-power IoT network allows farmers and city planners to test water for farming and consumer use by answering questions from the basic – ‘Where is the network leaking?’ to the more complex ‘Can we accurately predict our customers’ water use and optimise their processes?’.
Having started its mission for local and sustainable development in developing countries, Camnexus is now increasing engagement with UK partners from research and industry. The process of helping efficiently manage resources, and taking care of the environment with remote monitoring and predictive analytics, actually accelerated during lockdown, said CEO and co-founder Jessica Ocampos.
“The platform is deployed with collaboration from many people in many countries,” said Dr Ocampos. “Actually, COVID-19 has made it more evident that our way of working is very successful, we’ve been working remotely with our collaborators and that has validated the remote collaboration approach.
“So when COVID-19 happened, we realised there was an opportunity – this is how companies can pivot – and began looking at ideas of how we can combine with other forms of detection.
“A key bottleneck for problems with coronavirus detection is how to make it more simultaneous – getting a positive or negative result much faster, to reduce the time involved at an analytical lab towards the digital approach, which means a rapid signal.
“This is the kind of thing we’re looking for – connecting the biological part to the electronic part for real-time data on our phones is a work in progress.”
Progress is ongoing and has been boosted because Camnexus’ own-brand sensor can be deployed to test for coronavirus in water – “if you can map in an area you can identify the sector with the highest prevalence, on the same sensor”. Currently, there is no evidence that COVID-19 virus is in drinking treated water, but it remains a theoretical possibility. In any case, testing for the virus is one aspect of what a good water management would want – along with the harvesting and use of other, increasingly urgent, data for drought-risk Cambridgeshire.
“It would be very relevant to know how in ‘real-time’ COVID-19 can be monitored in water,” said Dr Ocampos of UK water companies’ analytical methods. “We extract the water, that can be analysed, and we look at other ways to understand the conditions in water by analysing the ecosystem around the water. Normally that means investigating the environmental microbiome, which is an indirect way of knowing the health of the ecosystem and find which micro-organism is present.”
One of the major traditional methods for monitoring water during waste-water treatment in the UK is a BOD-5 test, a biochemical oxygen demand test which takes five days from start to finish.
This test is used to indicate the short-term impact on the oxygen levels of the receiving water. The test requires a human to take a measurement, this has to then be sealed and transported to a lab, for subsequent testing and measurement. If required limits are exceeded, the company is then informed, five days after the event.
This is a slow and extensive process for a method which is important to identify the cleanliness of the wastewater treatment process. The time-rich process creates an opportunity for new technologies and products – and secure a position in a market which is predicted to be over $2bn worldwide by 2030. The sensor Camnexus has developed can track many different aspects of water and wastewater networks to monitor pipes across the entire network, for ease of leak identification and for pressure regulation. But the sensors are one part of a multi-tasking platform.
“Our solution is a system,” said Dr Ocampos. “It’s not about a sensor, it’s about making better decisions. There’s three parts involved – the sensor which is the eyes; the data flow and thirdly a ‘brain’ that takes decisions.”
Surely this is of interest to local water companies?
“We’re in conversation with different potential clients not just in the UK,” replies Dr Ocampos, “so yes Anglian Water, and also other companies in Latin America where the municipalities of city councils use sensors for water monitoring. The business model behind it is that for some it assists with policy or advice for a city government to react fast enough and take action as necessary.”
It might take time for the UK industry to adapt. Anglian Water told the Cambridge Independent, “We are providing samples to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs [Defra] for testing, however the studies are not analysing for the virus but rather the RNA, we are only supplying the samples and are not doing the testing ourselves.”
Defra, however, is more proactive than this suggests.
“Sewage monitoring is being established across the UK as part of an advance warning system to detect new outbreaks of coronavirus,” said the Defra website. “The new approach is based on recent research findings that fragments of genetic material – RNA – from the virus can be detected in waste water. This could be used to detect the presence of the virus in the population, including those who are asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic.
“The World Health Organisation is clear there is currently no evidence that coronavirus has been transmitted via sewerage systems. Sampling from sewage treatment works around the country will begin shortly.”
Whittlesford-based Avacta’s highly specific Affimer reagents are capable of detecting the virus’ spike protein and are already being developed for diagnostic tests and neutralising therapies, as the Cambridge Independent has reported. The mission remains urgent because more than 60 per cent of COVID-19 patients have gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be found in their faecal samples.
Meanwhile Camnexus is continuing its Future 20 journey, which has been extended to the end of the year.
“Future 20 launched last year, and we applied in May,” said Dr Ocampos. “We were awarded a place as one of 20 companies developing solutions to global challenges.
“It’s a very interesting programme and we’re working with like-minded people, imparting technology for good. As part of the programme we’ve been given space at Future Business Centre, and it’s really good to have access to those facilities along with mentoring support in the Cambridge and London innovation systems.”
“The programme launched in June last year,” said Allia head of marketing Laura Nicholls, “and we always said that it would run for 12-18 months. Some of the ventures are ready to graduate from the programme, some of the ventures will be sign-posted to other threads of expert help, some are ready to run on their own, and some of them are staying on till later in the year. The COVID crisis has affected them all in different ways.”
Indeed – and many have risen to the challenge to provide life-saving services and products.
“The platform’s real-time monitoring and predictive analytics means we can help to map and trace the virus in the sewage system,” concluded Dr Ocampos.