Irrigation Leader
Portrait photo of Nisha Sarveswaran, chief executive officer of Ecoli-Sense
Innovator,  Interview

The High-Tech Way to Fight E. Coli

Ecoli-Sense is a startup company that has invented a nanomaterials-based device for instantaneously checking water supplies for E. coli contamination. Working either on the basis of a hand-held testing device or buoys that stay in a water body continuously, Ecoli-Sense’s system is both high tech and more affordable than traditional methods.

In this interview, Ecoli-Sense’s chief executive officer Nisha Sarveswaran and Chief Technical Officer Jamal Zeinalov talk to Irrigation Leader writer Parker Kenyon about their company’s origins, its product, and its potential benifits for irrigation districts and water users.

Parker Kenyon: Please tell us about your backgrounds.

Nisha Sarveswaran: My background is in aerospace engineering. I also have experience in another startup that does real-time air-quality monitoring. I was exposed to a lot of E. coli–related market analysis when I was doing business development for the other startup. When I realized the scale of the problem, and what a large project it would be to fight it, I started talking with Jamal about it and we came up with this solution.

Jamal Zeinalov: My background is also in aerospace engineering, but I am more on the materials side; that is the area in which I did my doctorate. I have always had an interest in this problem, and when we started to talk about it, we had the idea of looking into the research and development in the field of nanomaterials as a way of possibly addressing the problem. That is how I got involved in the business. Now I am heading up the technical side of things.

Parker Kenyon: How did your company get started?

Nisha Sarveswaran: I was looking at ways in which pathogen detection could be changed from culture-based analysis to more instantaneous monitoring, and Jamal has a PhD in nanomaterials. Together, we talked to a team at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, that is especially focused on the development of nanosensors that are able to detect pathogens instantaneously. We started working with them through funding from the Canadian government, focusing on E. coli and particular strains of it. The initial output was good, so we pursued the technology further. To build the business aspect of it, the Business, Research, and Entrepreneurship in Water (BREW) accelerator program at The Water Council in Milwaukee helped guide us in market development and in understanding customer expectations and showed us how we could implement or technology in other people’s systems. We then went to the Southern Ontario Water Consortium, which helped fund further research. We are ready to launch our product; we are very excited to bring it to the market.

Parker Kenyon: Could you please describe the product?

Jamal Zeinalov: The product is basically an antigen nanosensor that works on the basis of a few technologies fused together. That is one of the strengths of the company: We have brought technologies together that in this market are not usually combined. On one end, you have the antigen-based nanosensor that allows us to detect an E. coli presence almost instantaneously, within a minute of exposure, which is paired with a hand-held Android device connected through Bluetooth. This device can send information to our cloud-based processing network. On our cloud, we have a learning algorithm that has a lot of different information based on our various trials, and based on that living algorithm we are able to almost immediately tell if there is E. coli present and how much there is if it is present. This information is then processed and sent to your hand-held device, cell phone, or tablet. The information is provided to you in about 2 minutes.

Parker Kenyon: Is the E. coli–detection device highly portable?

Nisha Sarveswaran: Yes, it is. The first model that we have coming out is a hand-held device that can analyze a droplet of water and detect the actual number of E. coli bacteria in it. We are also going to be launching a real-time automated buoy system that uses a disposable cartridge in a self-mechanized monitoring system. That system will be able to do more processing than our hand-held device does and is in research and development right now.

Parker Kenyon: So the buoy device could be placed in a permanent location and be used to constantly monitor E. coli levels in the water?

Nisha Sarveswaran: Absolutely. It uses an onboard cartridge that needs to be changed out approximately every 3 months. It has Wi-Fi on board to communicate with the cloud in real time. You can log in and tell it that you want it to test the water once a day or once every hour; you can change your frequency and adjust the testing times. You do not have to manually send out samples to the lab so often. Our technology is designed not only to assist current methods but also to make them faster. That way you can treat much earlier and avoid the development of a larger problem.

Parker Kenyon: Have you done any work with irrigation districts?

Nisha Sarveswaran: We have not gotten into irrigation yet, but it is one of the avenues we are looking to pursue. We are excited about this market, but up until now, we have been focused on other areas of water monitoring. We didn’t realize how large an opportunity the irrigation market is, and we are excited to get into it.

Parker Kenyon: What has been your client base so far?

Nisha Sarveswaran: We are a new startup and are just coming into the first production; we have just launched the product out of lab trials. We are looking at presales to work with various clients. We will be providing support to our first set of clients and learning from that.

Parker Kenyon: Would you please tell our readers about what they would be getting if they purchase your product?

Nisha Sarveswaran: They’ll get a hand-held app, which works with both Android and Apple devices, paired with our disposable cartridges. The cartridges are just like a pH strip: You put the strip in the hand-held device and it syncs with your phone to immediately show you what is happening with the water. When you run out of strips, you can simply order more, along with your monthly subscription giving you access to the dashboard monitoring. With the device, you can detect levels of E. coli in less than a minute, and you can solve your problems more quickly than by testing on a regular basis.

Parker Kenyon: What is the price of your hand-held device?

Nisha Sarveswaran: We don’t have a final price nailed down yet, but I can tell you that it will be a fraction of current E. coli testing methods. It is a renewable pricing model.

Parker Kenyon: What is your message to our readership?

Nisha Sarveswaran: Ecoli-Sense enables the real-time monitoring of pathogens at about one one-hundredth the cost of traditional systems. We are trying to give the power back to the customer to understand their water at a minute level. That way they can treat locally and manage issues that arise much more quickly.

Parker Kenyon: What is the best way for our readers to get in contact with Ecoli-Sense?

Nisha Sarveswaran: The best way to contact us is to e-mail us at info@ecoli-sense.com.