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.
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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.”