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The drinking water that comes from our faucets free of pathogens like Enterococcus, Legionella, and Escherichia coli must be checked regularly before it is delivered to us. Until now, samples have had to be taken at sampling points, transported to a laboratory, and dispensed onto a culture medium. Then you wait. It takes 2-14 days until the bacterial cultures start growing; only then can they be detected. A research team at the University of Potsdam, headed by Prof. Carsten Beta, has developed a rapid test that will shorten this to 30 minutes. The researchers are now setting up their own business around this idea – supported by the program EXIST – University-Based Business Startups.
Robert Niedl is holding a piece of brown paper with white lines and circles. What the biotechnologist is showing is more spectacular than it looks. The resin-cast filter paper is the key component of a miniaturized analysis lab developed by Niedl at his startup “diamond inventics”.
“Detecting microorganisms in drinking water is what we do,” Niedl explains the principle of his business idea that he and three fellow researchers at the University of Potsdam are developing. The team is funded through an EXIST Business Startup Grant, which allows the researchers to promote their business idea and outline it in a fully developed business plan. This funding program was established by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and provides targeted funding for university-based business startups.
“Our testing system provides on-site results in 30 minutes and determines whether there is an infestation,” Niedl explains the aim of diamond inventics. Capture, mark, and detect bacteria – these are the steps of the rapid test using simple filter paper, says Niedl, as he connects a black prism-shaped plastic case to the faucet in the lab. “This is our prototype,” the biotechnologist explains. When he turns the faucet on, water runs out of the other side of the prism. A microporous filter inside the case catches every bacterial cell. Up to 3 liters of water must run through the filter for a standardized drinking water test.
Once sampling is complete, the filter cartridge is then pushed into a reader that detects bacteria. The detection is based on a mechanism Niedl calls microfluidics. The resin on the filter paper forms small channels and reservoirs, where the analytical equipment applies specific reaction fluids. What makes this special is that the resin coating creates spatial separation that allows several steps to be performed consecutively. First, liquid is added, pushing the antibodies already in a reservoir on the filter to the center, where they can bind with bacterial cells that might already be there. Excess antibodies are then rinsed off, and a dye solution is added. The testing system requires only a few microliters of each liquid, applied through a magnetic globe valve. The actual detection of bacteria is based on a chemical reaction that emits measurable light.
Niedl and his team are refining the rapid test. The color reaction still has to be optimized and the case of the testing device still has to be tailored to the needs of water-testing institutions, for example large water suppliers and environmental laboratories. To better understand these needs, “diamond inventics” brought in the Potsdam Water and Environmental Laboratory as a project partner. The Laboratory regularly analyzes water samples for bacterial infestation and will be examining the test’s practical applicability.
Niedl initially conceived the idea for the water test while working on his PhD thesis, which focused on microfluidics and the detection of substances on very small areas. “Since the basic concept had already shown a lot of promise, we thought it would be a pity to just let the thesis collect dust on the shelf,” Niedl says. So he started looking for suitable partners together with Potsdam Transfer, because a company could hardly be established alone. Apart from the funding, the team also has to be right. The researcher knows that the startup’s success will depend on the system’s practicality and user-friendliness. While Niedl is busy optimizing the biochemical processes, three other team members are in charge of developing the product idea into a marketable solution.
Physicist Alexander Anielski ensures the accuracy of the biochemical reactions, which are the basis of the water test, by developing the measuring device’s electronics and sensor technology. Business graduate Katja Richter is keeping a close eye on the finances, while Nicole von Lipinski makes sure that the test is easy-to-use and that the design meets customers’ needs.
“For me, it is all about manageability,” explains product designer von Lipinsik. She considers not only the material and the appearance of the final product, but also the user. To understand the issues important to those using the test, she accompanies employees of the project partner during their daily work to see how water samples are being taken and processed. “What do the sampling sites and sampling bottles look like? What about the car’s interior? How much time does the employee spend in the vehicle? All these details have to be considered during product development,” explains von Lipinski.
The founders’ workdays are long and sometimes riddled with pitfalls. “We are doing pioneering work,” says Richter. In biotechnology, many structures have to be created, since the current selection does not suffice. To develop their product, the researchers need laboratories, clean rooms, and very expensive materials. Patent law presents another hurdle. Precious time is also spent on administration. This all makes the support provided by the university infrastructure, which is bolstered by Brandenburg’s well thought-out funding catalog, even more important. “Without the mentorship of Prof. Carsten Beta and the support provided by Dr. Patrick Bröker from Potsdam Transfer, many things would have been a lot more difficult,” says Richter.
The schedule is tight. The final product should be available in six months. “Production, packaging, delivery, an ordering system – each of these process steps have to be established,” Richter describes the challenges. While the price for the new testing system will be higher than for conventional testing, its advantages are obvious. Besides saving time, the test also includes networking options with digital communication systems, which are to attract more potential users to the test. “The device can be connected to a communication unit – a smartphone or laptop – making the results immediately available to customers, who can then take any necessary measures,” Niedl describes the concept. “The demand for our rapid water test is there,” the team is convinced.
“diamond inventics” is a startup developing a rapid detection test for microorganisms in water samples. Since June 2015, three of the four participating researchers have been supported through a one-year EXIST Business Startup Grant. They also receive funding for coaching and material expenses.
Dr. Robert Niedl studied biology in Mainz and earned his doctorate in biotechnology in Potsdam. He is responsible for scientific development at “diamond inventics”.
Dipl.-Kffr. Katja Richter M.A. studied business administration at the University of Potsdam and is in charge of business development.
Dipl.-Phys. Alexander Anielski studied physics at the University of Potsdam and develops the measurement technology of the rapid test.
Nicole von Lipinski studied industrial design at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW Berlin) and makes sure that the final product is user-friendly, robust, and easy-to-use.
Text: Heike Kampe
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Silvana Seppä
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