Startup Gippsland Alumni Creates COVID-19 Testing in Wastewater

Emily Scholes, Founder and Chief Scientist of Enviro MicroBio and Startup Gippsland alumni, has found a way to test COVID19 in wastewater!


With ample experience in water and wastewater testing and management, and a background in membrane science, Emily identified a need to provide COVID-19 testing services for large-scale businesses and industry bodies. After reading of the success in wastewater testing in the Netherlands, and with a large amount of work in microbial control for industrial customers under her belt, Emily knew it was a service she could bring to market. And so, she has since pivoted her focus toward creating a method for virus detection.

While the government is currently conducting some wastewater monitoring within major plants in Australia, Emily’s goal is to support businesses and industries who are high risk for being shut down, or experiencing significant financial loss if an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak was to occur. She is now looking to large industries and manufacturers, and bodies such as boarding schools who are at an elevated risk and would benefit from this testing. 

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“Looking overseas, we can see certain types of businesses are at greater risk of an outbreak. For example, in America it was identified that businesses such as abattoirs are at high risk because they are confined, cold, moist”, says Emily. “Workplaces with high numbers of staff from vulnerable populations, like casual or migrant workers who are less likely to take unpaid sick leave, would also classify as high risk. Large corporate offices can have hundreds or thousands of employees sharing relatively small spaces such as lunch rooms, lifts, and bathrooms. We can provide these industries with a way to manage their elevated risk.” 

Emily sees a need for wastewater testing not just now, but into the future. With restrictions beginning to ease and people going back to work, wastewater testing can detect the COVID-19 virus and scan a large number of people in a single test.

“It isn’t viable to test every employee or person, as the virus can be easily transmitted post-testing, so water testing will allow companies to keep tabs on their entire organisation easily, without being invasive or requiring specific consent. Not only will employees feel confident that their workplace is safe, but it will also help to de-risk organisations or companies, and allow them to uphold their reputation and willingness to stay safe”, says Emily.

Considering COVID-19 is shed in the waste of both sick and asymptomatic people, Emily and her team have developed a method to test for virus particles in wastewater samples. At its heart, it is the same technology used in medical testing, however it is specifically designed to provide a simple Yes or No answer to the presence of the virus. Emily stresses that her service is not a medical test or diagnosis. and does not give an indication of how many people are infected. “While there is some work being conducted within the science world to define how many people in a large sample may have the virus due to the amount of particles which are shed, I am focussed purely on telling a company that they either do or do not have a problem”. 

Emily recommends that companies test weekly, at a minimum. “Daily testing would be ideal as infection can happen instantaneously, but we live in a world where we have to weigh up the cost benefit”, states Emily. “The amount of testing would be dependent on the size of the organisation, workers’ access to health care, and the hours of operation of the company and whether they are staffed 24 hours a day”

After the Startup Gippsland program…

Through her involvement in the Startup Gippsland Program 2019, Emily has learnt the value of how to couple her love of science with her love of business. She has developed a core understanding of the importance of creating a viable product, and how it can be used to benefit the community as a whole. Instead of just looking at the problem she wishes to solve, Emily is tackling her approach to COVID-19 testing with new eyes. As well as finding businesses who are interested in her product, she is looking at how she could create jobs within the Latrobe Valley for those who wish to assist with sampling and testing. 

Emily and her team are currently identifying interested businesses and organisations for this wastewater testing. In order to perform the testing to a high standard, they need to invest in additional equipment which will help them to extract virus particles from large wastewater samples. “When we are looking to detect just one infection, we need the tools which will provide us with the scientifically best outcome”, says Emily. “We’re looking forward to confirming our first customers for this service, and making the necessary infrastructure investments.” Emily wants to hear from anyone who would like to learn more about wastewater testing and how it can benefit their business. “I believe that there are businesses out there who wish to protect their reputation, the safety of their staff, and who have a high risk of financial loss should an outbreak occur”. 

“Emily is a dedicated founder who is always on the hunt for new ways to use her expertise to solve some of our biggest problems. This open-mindedness, curiosity and drive is what we look for in our founders at Startup Gippsland and we’re so proud that Emily and EnviroMicroBio are an alum”, says Stephanie Thoo, Program Manager for Startup Gippsland. 

Emily is a shining example of what can be achieved through participating in the Startup Gippsland Program. By coupling her passion for science with integral business knowledge, she has been able to develop a product which could truly help Australia not just now, but into the future. This testing will prove to be beneficial for the economy of Gippsland as a whole, keeping companies and organisations in operation as we navigate out of this crisis. 


For more information, contact Emily at www.enviromicrobio.com.au


Watch Emily’s 2019 Startup Gippsland Pitch: