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DNA test traces back to point of pollution

As municipalities globally enact stricter water pollution standards and discharge limits, new testing methods are needed to support early warning and enforcement. Veracet, a Berkeley, CA-based startup and Imagine H2O Asia company, is developing a new mapping and diagnostics platform using DNA fingerprinting to help cities trace the sources of microbial contamination in a single test. We sat down with Gary Andersen at WEFTEC 2019 to learn more about his journey from a Berkeley microbiology professor to a microbiome science entrepreneur.

How did you transition from researching microbes to starting Veracet?

I have always been interested in how microorganisms interact with each other to transform the environment around them. Understanding microbial community structure in changing environments is especially fascinating to me. After the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, my research lab was one of the first groups on-site and we discovered how specific microbes were degrading oil in the deep ocean.

Using similar technology in my lab, we began examining the entire water biome. We were able to identify all the novel organisms that were characteristic to a particular contamination source. Through this research, I quickly realized that there was a knowledge gap in current water testing methods. These techniques rely on two or three bacteria to indicate if there is contamination from a source, often making their results inaccurate or inconclusive. Our ability to map thousands of microbes simultaneously sets us apart — our technology has an exponentially higher accuracy detection rate. Simply, the power of thousands is greater than one!

As I published papers on this water quality testing approach, I began receiving requests from water managers, state and local water officials, the US EPA and even affected homeowners groups. They wanted me to help them identify origins of fecal pollutants in their watersheds because their current methods were insufficient. As a university researcher, I helped several groups successfully identify their contamination sources, but lacked the capacity to help all of them. This led to frustrations on both sides. I realized there was an urgent need to translate the success of this innovative technology into a service available to the larger water testing community. That’s when we decided to start Veracet.

What were your initial challenges when starting your company?

Since there was such a high demand for our solutions, I assumed that attracting new customers would be fairly straightforward. Once we started Veracet, I realized that my contacts in water agencies were not translating into customer leads. Although these people had the technical knowledge to understand the science behind Veracet, they didn’t always have the ability to make purchasing decisions. And the people on the business side with purchasing authority didn’t always understand how Veracet fit into their broader priorities. There was this major disconnect. This was when I realized that I needed a clearer business model and market focus.

What is most misunderstood about the water quality testing business?

I think there is a false economy in accepting testing methods that are either too confusing or don’t lead to an actionable outcome. People tend to doubt the accuracy of many testing methods because they don’t make much sense. Other methods do little to help managers make informed decisions about corrective measures. This is largely due to the siloed nature of municipal organizations where water quality testing is independent from remediation budgets.

We at Veracet not only identify the actual sources of contamination, but also help our customers translate this data into actionable intelligence.

What is the single biggest challenge to Veracet’s work?

I believe that there is a global demand for a technology like ours. Especially in present times, with new regulations and better enforcement, our customer base extends far beyond just the United States. Our challenge still remains finding the right people within agencies to streamline the approval process. Only they would have the ability to commit the financial resources required to test and deploy our technology.

What has transpired in the months after entering the Imagine H2O Asia Accelerator?

Imagine H2O quickly exceeded my expectations and became a productive partner in helping Veracet craft the right strategies to break down barriers to faster validation and adoption. The accelerator process has challenged us to further validate some key assumptions about our early path to market — specifically opportunities in Southeast Asia. Now, we’re thinking through — the ideal segment to engage with, learning more about our customer’s purchasing behavior, and opportunities for faster adoption in Southeast Asia. Also taking the lessons learned from the program, I have reached out to the Haas School of Business at Berkeley to explore how MBA students can help us further inform our market approach

Sum up your Imagine H2O Asia experience in 3 words

Epic wild ride.