Water-testing startup finds its flow

· The Pulse

Named for a Farsi word meaning "bright," Edmonton's Roshan Water Solutions is commercializing a novel water-testing technology that its founders hope will save lives.

"It's (a word) that can describe both clean water as well as a bright future," said CEO Amirreza Sohrabi, who co-founded the company with his wife, Parmiss Mojir Shaibani, in 2017.

At the time, both were PhD students in materials engineering at the University of Alberta. They saw commercial potential in Mojir Shaibani's research into a new way to test water for bacteria at the site of sample collection. From her doctoral work, they created a portable water testing kit called VeloCens that can be used in the field to analyze water samples for harmful bacteria, producing results in just an hour, while lab-based tests take 24 hours.

After finishing their doctoral work, the couple continued their early research and development as postdoctoral scholars in the U of A's Advanced Water Research Lab, run by Mohtada Sadrzadeh. They had secured funding from the national non-profit Mitacs and were making progress.

Then COVID-19 hit. They were visiting family in Iran with their toddler, and travel restrictions left them stranded for six months. When they returned, pandemic protocols severely limited their lab access, so they built an R&D space in their basement.

Since then, they've regained their momentum, securing funding from government sources like Alberta Innovates and NRC IRAP and making the top 20 at Startup TNT's cleantech investment summit in February 2022. In January 2023, they pitched at Newchip Accelerator's Online Demo Week and have since connected with four prospective investors.

Within the last year, they've done 10 demonstration projects with small municipalities across Alberta, such as Sturgeon County and Edson, and they began collaborating with Calgary's Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technologies (CAWST), a non-profit that creates engineering solutions for the water issues in developing countries.

A chart showing a trend up and to the right indicating that the more times a waterworks systems runs a test for bacteria, the more positive results it will get

A study conducted by Roshan Water Solutions in Alberta showed that utilities that test their water more frequently are more likely to find bacteria, demonstrating the need for fast and affordable results to incentivize frequent testing, Amirreza Sohrabi said during his pitch at the Newchip Accelerator Online Demo Week on Jan. 24, 2023. (Vimeo)

Sohrabi and Mojir Shaibani have also been making inroads internationally. Last year, UNICEF chose Roshan Water Solutions for a feasibility study of their device in Nigeria, and global water management firm SUEZ Water Technologies and Solutions evaluated the device at their UK facility.

"Performance-wise, it was very close to a standard lab," Sohrabi said. The startup is negotiating some projects in Latin America at the moment.

The global interest in VeloCens stems from a great need for quick and accurate detection of bacterial contamination in water systems worldwide. Pathogens in drinking water kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. Although the developing world is more susceptible, water quality can be poor in developed countries, too, as is the case in many Indigenous communities in Canada. (Remember when Iqaluit declared a state of emergency in 2021?). There are also specific circumstances when field tests or quick results are crucial, such as when water mains break, giving bacteria a chance to enter the line.

Sohrabi said most of Roshan's competitors employ quantitative PCR (qPCR), a rapid and portable version of in-lab PCR tests. These tests can't differentiate between living bacterial cells, which cause illness, and dead ones, which don't, making the results meaningless in a situation like a water main break where water may have been previously treated with chlorine (which kills bacteria but doesn't eliminate it). "Because our technology works with the metabolism of the bacteria, by its nature, the bacteria have to be alive," Sohrabi said.

Another key differentiator is the product's integration of AI. Sample bottles with QR codes can be scanned by a mobile app to gather details like date, location, and time, reducing human error. "With the digital solutions we've created, our aim is to get rid of all the paper trails that our industry is using to transcribe information about the sample or even the test results," said Sohrabi.

In 2023, Sohrabi hopes to finish product development, field-test in more Alberta municipalities (including Indigenous communities, ideally), launch in the market, and raise capital.

The company's business model is based on a one-time fee for VeloCens at $3,900 to $5,000, and recurring revenue from test kits that involve patented technology, according to Sohrabi's Newchip pitch. The mobile web app and access to basic data are free, though the company has in mind a subscription service for historical trend management.

While he has jumped in with both feet, Sohrabi said he would eventually like to start something new with his team.

"My ideal goal is to be able to sell this product to a company that can expand its reach beyond what we can do ourselves," he said.