Using sewage to keep people healthy

Everyone deserves to know that the places they live, or work are healthy and free from infection. Untap has the answer. It provides communities and business with up-to-the-minute information about viruses and bacteria in their wastewater meaning they can make effective interventions to reduce the spread of infections.

Posted on: 28/09/2023

This “early warning system” in our sewers is giving people peace of mind and can help halt future pandemics in their tracks. Untap CEO, Claire Trant explains, “By sharing this data with people we can either reassure them that they have no virus or, if they do, we can catch it early.”

Claire and co-founder Jay Bullen have been using £109,581 of Innovate UK grants to adapt and test the technology normally found in PCR tests, turning it into an always-on system that sits in our sewers monitoring the health of local communities. Because it is automated, Untap removes the need for individuals to undergo invasive testing. It is also entirely anonymous and guarantees full community participation.

Untap’s first grant from Innovate UK funded critical pilots that helped Claire and Jay learn more about near-source, real-time testing at three different types of locations, including Somerset House. As well as capturing new data, they were able to learn more about customer needs. They worked out that daily updates would be more relevant and less overwhelming for customers (as opposed to hourly ones). The team were also able to prove that, compared to lateral flow test, Untap delivered more regular results, had more sensitive detection rates, and cost less per person. The second grant through Women In Innovation is currently being used to carry out live product testing on customer sites this summer.

3d rendered scientific illustration of some bacteria

Working with Innovate UK has given the Untap team benefits beyond the grants. Jay says, “It has added a lot more rigour to the way we are working and our approach to project planning is more thorough and structured.” It has also helped accelerate conversations with investors and future customers. Claire says, “Having the Innovate UK stamp to say we’ve got funding to do this, opened doors that had previously been closed. It has given us more authority and helped us build interest out of those initial pilots.” And it’s worked. Untap has secured £1.5m of investment, including £100,000 from the British Design Fund last November. It has been able to triple its headcount in a year from 3 to 9 people, and already has a waiting list of organisations interested in using the product over the winter for norovirus and influenza testing.

Both founders didn’t expect to find themselves deep in sewage surveillance. Alumni of Imperial College London, Claire was an engineer at Rolls Royce and Jay developed technology for detecting and treating contaminated water in the UK, India and Mexico. The pandemic brought them together when they observed the lack of technology tailored towards current sewage surveillance, or Wastewater-Based Epidemiology. Introduced in the 1950s to monitor for polio, testing was still being done entirely manually making it deeply unpleasant to do, time-consuming to collect, and slow to analyse. Results were out of date before they could be used effectively.

By rapidly transforming testing in this way, Untap has essentially created a new market and tapped into an urgent social need, accelerating its own company journey in the process.

The more we live in densely populated environments, the more we are likely to see infections increase. We want to change how people live alongside viruses and bacteria by delivering accurate useful information, so people can act at speed to address these outbreaks. For businesses, we can help them improve productivity and reduce sick days. In social or health settings, our early warning system will catch outbreaks before they spread, and better protect the vulnerable people in our communities.

– Claire Trant, CEO of Untap

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