To Track Opioid Use, More Cities May Soon Screen Wastewater

A new tech startup allows cities to chart drug usage down to the neighborhood level.
by | March 12, 2018
Newsha Ghaeli, the co-founder of Biobot Analytics, pitching her "wastewater epidemiology" technology to mayors at South by Southwest. (David Kidd)

Governing is reporting from the mayor's track at the South by Southwest conference in Austin. Find all our coverage at

Cities may soon have a new tool in their efforts to contain the opioid epidemic: residents' own urine.

Biobot Analytics, the winning startup in a pitch competition judged by mayors this weekend at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, measures the concentration of opioids in sewage to estimate levels of drug use in different neighborhoods.

“Everybody pees, every day,” said Newsha Ghaeli, co-founder of Biobot, during her pitch to the mayors on Sunday. “And this rich source of human health information aggregates in our public sewers -- an infrastructure that you own, you maintain and you manage.”

Too often, public officials rely on information about opioids and opiates that is reactive, such as overdoses and deaths, Ghaeli says. With wastewater, cities can collect samples and analyze the data every two weeks, allowing them to pinpoint where residents are abusing drugs and whether consumption declines after policy interventions.

Since launching as a company six months ago, Biobot has already started operating in Cambridge, Mass., and will soon go live in Cary, N.C. as well. (Last month, Bloomberg Philanthropies named Cary one of 35 “Champion Cities” for its proposal to test Biobot’s opioid detection technology.)

“It’s a very creative way to use a source of untapped data. Who thinks about measuring wastewater?” said Fort Worth, Texas, Mayor Betsy Price, who was one of three mayors on a panel of judges. “This is another way to use city assets that we don’t think about to hit a problem like opioids or public health in general.”

Governing interviewed Ghaeli before the pitch session on Sunday to learn more about her backstory and how Biobot came to focus on the opioid crisis:



As the winner of the competition, Biobot receives $10,000 and the opportunity to present in front of 600 mayors at the U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting next summer. (Watch Biobot's pitch here.)

“What we were most excited about, beyond the money, was the opportunity to go to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and have even a bigger platform to talk about the work that we’re doing,” Ghaeli said after the session.

The five other good-government startups that participated in the pitch competition sought to address a wide range of problems, from simplifying the citizen naturalization process to getting better data on how citizens feel about their government.

Citymart, which helps governments procure products and services that are already proven to work, won $5,000 for finishing in second place. (Watch Citymart's pitch here.) Elucd, which uses surveys and smart phone data to measure citizen sentiment, won $2,500 for finishing third. (Watch Elucd's pitch here.)

Even teams that did not win had the benefit of exposure and may leave with influential backers. Boundless, the startup focused on streamlining the immigration process, caught the eye of Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, another judge at the competition. (Watch Boundless' pitch here.)

"Stockton is 35 percent foreign-born, so immigration and legalization is a huge issue, especially everything that’s happening with the federal government and California,” Tubbs said after the session, referring to a recent lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against the state’s sanctuary laws that limit government officials’ ability to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

“We’ve literally been thinking about what’s the best thing we can do to help not just show support but do things that are actionable for our immigrant community,” Tubbs says. “Bringing in Boundless would allow us to do that.”

Governing spoke with Xiao Wang of Boundless about his family’s experience with the cumbersome and pricey naturalization process and how he’s trying to reduce those burdens for future generations of immigrants:



More from South by Southwest 2018 at