On April 3, 2018, a startup company named Oasis, based in Bangalore, India, captured the $15,000 grand prize in the fourth annual Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Water Innovation Prize (WIP) competition for its simple, inexpensive test for detecting E. coli.
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Organized and hosted by the student-led MIT Water Club, the prestigious pitch competition is designed to inspire and promote solutions to global water challenges by supporting emerging student entrepreneurs, says Preston Kutney, an MIT Master of Business Administration student and co-director of the WIP.
Oasis emerged first among some 60 applications submitted in December 2017, then a field of nine finalists. Over several months, the finalists participated in networking events and worked with investment, corporate, and entrepreneurial mentors to develop their commercial ventures.
Utilizing the prize money, Oasis is expecting to produce about 150,000 E. coli tests per year, which will be available for purchase starting in June 2018. The test has already been used in pilot deployments by organizations including UNICEF, the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, and the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, according to Oasis founder Arjun Bir, a 2018 Georgia Tech civil engineering graduate.
Bir says the test uses a color-coded system to determine both if and how contaminated the water is. “The system is designed to test for all strains of E. coli with equal accuracy,” Bir relates. “Mechanisms are built in to ensure that it does not false-positive against other organisms. Initial field trials have shown that both sensitivity and specificity are above 98 percent when compared against membrane filtration, the current gold standard method for detection of E. coli in water.”
Retail priced at $2.99, the Oasis test comes in a self-contained, pocket-sized format.
“The kit includes two plastic bags that are pre-loaded with a specialized E. coli detection powder that yields an orange solution when dissolved in the water sample,” Bir explains. “The solution first turns orange, then if even a single cell of E. coli is present in either bag, the solution will turn red.”
Different color combinations determine the level of contamination, Bir explains: safe (both orange); unsafe, low risk (small orange, large red); unsafe, medium risk (small red, large orange); or unsafe, high risk (both red).
“Results are interpreted by the color of the bags after 48 hours if they are kept at ambient temperature, or 24 hours if incubated at 37 degrees Celsius,” Bir notes.
Current Oasis plans include making its water test available to individuals in India, China, Europe, Mexico, Brazil, and the U.S. through Amazon fulfillment services. “We are targeting a wide variety of market sectors internationally, most predominant of which is the water quality monitoring sector that is driven by governments, international agencies, and universities,” Bir explains.
“Working on the ground in impoverished communities in my native India for the last six years, it has become clear to me that access to clean drinking water is the focal point of a web of issues that lock people, who over time have become dear friends of mine, into poverty,” Bir relates. “After grappling with various approaches to solving this problem over the last few years, I am finally confident that we have a solution that can really work in a sustainable manner. One that puts the people bearing the brunt of the situation in the driver’s seat.”
The detection limit is just 1 colony forming unit of E. coli per 100 milliliters. “Our test can be performed by anyone, anywhere,” he adds. “We’ve provided it to children in India, where there’s no access to education, and, just by following the instructions, they’ve been able to perform the test.”
Many people in rural India assume their water is fine or don’t have access to traditional E. coli tests, Bir says. “I think the most important thing is that the Oasis test is not an indicator of E. coli presence alone,” he says. “With the contamination pathway for all microbial contamination being feces, the test essentially tells you if the pathway is open or not.”
In January 2017, in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology, researchers from Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, UNICEF and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine deployed 3,000 Oasis tests in Kanpur, India. “In a region where poverty is rampant and resources are limited, the researchers were keen to see if access to these tests would result in improved water quality,” Bir says. “They provided no intervention support except for these three suggestions to community members: 1) boil water if it is contaminated, 2) store it in a safe storage container, and 3) wash hands regularly.”
In a single month after using the Oasis test, mean E. coli counts fell by a staggering 40 percent among the Kanpur households involved, Bir reports. “Behavioral outcomes were positive, also,” he elaborates. “In households that used Oasis tests and received a positive signal, the percent of households using covered water storage containers increased from 93 percent to 100 percent, and soap availability for handwashing increased from 89 percent to 99 percent.”
Water Quality Data App
Oasis is currently developing an app that coordinates large scale water quality data collection efforts and enables crowd-sourcing of water quality data. “This opens up the possibility for anyone to contribute to this database, and the data itself will be openly available to all interested parties,” Bir mentions. “Worldwide, we currently have little to no data on microbial water quality because the current standard test, membrane filtration, is simply not scalable. As a scalable and reliable alternative, the Oasis test will enable large scale data collection on microbial water quality for the first time. The app will coordinate such trials seamlessly.”
Individuals, too, have been unable to test their own water for the same reasons, Bir continues. “The app will allow everyone who runs a test to add their datapoint to a public database,” he says. “This data becomes useful to institutions that are setting policy, but is also a major asset to all stakeholders, including individuals and families.”
Since food and water quality and safety are inextricably linked, with the pathways for contamination for both being essentially the same, Bir is confident the Oasis water test holds promise for improving food quality and safety—in homes and retail and manufacturing venues, especially in developing countries. “Based on the results in Kanpur, we have shown beyond a doubt that allowing people to test their own water leads to safer living environments and cleaner water,” Bir emphasizes. “In households around the world, especially those in impoverished communities, the test serves as a tool to spark changes in behavior. There is no doubt whatsoever that these changes in behavior translate into food quality and safety improvements as well.”