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Winner Spotlight: Fluid-Screen’s Revolutionary Bacterial Detection System Works in Real Time

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Each year 47 million Americans contract food or waterborne infections. The technique currently in place to test for bacteria takes four days. But the flagship product by Boston-based Fluid-Screen cuts this wait time down drastically to a half-hour—and uses a device the size of a smartphone.

The startup is beginning by testing water for bacteria. Its device also has been proven to find bacteria in urine and blood also, which means hospitals are the next recipients of the technology.

Fluid-Screen won the highly competitive health competition of Challenge Cup in Boston. Following the pitch event, Zachary Slater, director of operations, talked about his team’s strides, goals and admiration for other Massachusetts life-sciences companies.

Very simply, what does Fluid-Screen do?

We take core technologies that are pretty well known and pretty well published in the academic community and integrate them in a way that allows us to use them to detect bacteria in a very short period of time, with very high specificity.

What was the process to develop this?

Years of research went into this at Reed Lab at Yale University. Part of Monika Weber, our CEO’s, Ph.D. work was optimizing these different technologies and putting them together in such a way so as to turn it into a product. Now we have the licensing agreement to spin the company out of Yale University and try to commercialize it.

Your first market is water testing. What are other usages beyond that?

First of all, using our minimum viable product, detecting one bacteria at a time we felt like the water testing market will be the easiest to penetrate so that we can start generating revenue. Once we start generating revenue and we can grow our team we’re going to be focusing on R&D in parallel to get into the medical diagnostics field.

How does this work from a selling standpoint? Have you figured out how much you’ll sell devices for and to whom?

I can’t say how much we’ll sell it for but it will be competitive in the market. Really, our entire business plan is based on scaling, so the more units we can manufacture and sell, the more the price will go down so we can compete with cheaper solutions out there.

In her pitch, Monika alluded to the fact that there are no other competitors out there—or at least any possible ones that are proven. Is that your differentiator?

There are a lot of competitors out there that are based in their own type of science. We feel that our competitive advantage is our speed, that we don’t have to sacrifice any sensitivity to gain results in just 30 minutes. Whereas even our competitors who claim to be fast, generally they’re in the 18- to 24-hour range. That improves upon the gold standard right now, but we don’t feel it’s as good as what we bring to the table.

And getting these results in less than an hour—versus closer to a day—makes a big difference?

Absolutely. It’s diagnosing basically in real time, so you can make decisions before contamination becomes an issue.

One of the judges asked about this idea of setting a threshold for bacteria. Explain what this means.

Another function of our technology is that we can actually enumerate bacteria. From industry to industry, there are different standards for an “acceptable” level of bacteria. One bacteria may not be a huge issue in one industry, whereas it’s unacceptable in a different industry. We can quantify how many bacteria are in a sample so we can decide whether or not it’s within the threshold of the given industry.

Tell me about the background of the team members and how you ended up pursuing this startup.

We think that we have a really well-rounded team. Monika is obviously the co-inventor; she got the patent in the technology, and her background is in microelectronics. Dr. Uzma Alam, who’s our VP of global strategy, has a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology and a Masters degree in public health from Yale. My background is in economics, accounting and corporate finance. We feel that we have a very well-rounded team. It’s very small with three of us, but we cover all aspects of our business.

Lastly, what did you get out of competing in Challenge Cup?

This has been great. Just getting together and seeing all of these spectacular startups. I feel like I have to give a shoutout to Admetsys, which was also in the finals for health. We knew they’d probably be here because we got to know them very well at Mass Challenge, and we have nothing but respect for their core technology. To be able to get to know these other startups, I think that every one of them in this rom will end up being successful.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…