Students from Georgia Tech win MIT Water Innovation Prize for E. coli detecting test

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Civil engineering senior Arjun Bir and his Oasis team, center, won the $15,000 grand prize in the MIT Water Innovation Prize competition April 4. The team created a simple, inexpensive test for detecting E. coli in drinking water in India. Second-place prizes for $7,500 went to Velaron, right, for developing a smart sensor system for aquaculture shrimp farmers, and Majik Water for developing a system that uses a desiccant substance to harvest drinking water from air in arid regions of Africa. (Photo: Andi Sutton/Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT)

Oasis, a student team from Georgia Tech which includes an Indian American, won the $15,000 grand prize in the MIT Water Innovation Prize competition on April 4, for their simple and inexpensive test for detecting E. coli in contaminated drinking water.

The test uses a color-coded system to determine not just if, but also how contaminated the water is and the team’s first market in rural India with hopes to expand to other developing areas in the world.

“Having seen from very close quarters the kind of suffering that comes out of situations where clean water is not available, I think the solution we’re presenting today is a step in the right direction,” team member Arjun Bir, a civil engineering undergraduate at Georgia Tech who hails from Bangalore, India, said in his winning pitch.

The Oasis test costs $2.99 and comes as a paper tube with picture-based instructions printed on the side.

Inside the tube there is a small plastic bag and a large plastic bag which are preloaded with E. coli detection powder.

Users can then fill the tube and its cap with drinking water to a fill line and then pour the water into the respective bags.

The solution will first turn orange in color and in a day or two, will turn red if even a single cell of E. coli is present.

Different color combinations of both bags determine the level of contamination:

  • Safe: both orange
  • Unsafe, Low Risk: small orange, large red
  • Unsafe, Medium Risk: small red, large orange
  • Unsafe, High Risk: both red

According to Bir, standard equipment for these kinds of tests are much pricier and can be more complex and time-consuming, requiring additional materials such as and ultraviolet light.

“Our test can be performed by anyone, anywhere. We’ve given it to children in India, where there’s no access to education, and, just by following the instructions, they’ve been able to perform the test,” Bir added.

E. coli can be killed with chlorine tablets or by boiling the water but many people in rural India assume their water is fine or don’t have access to traditional E. colitests and that’s why Oasis has deployed 3,000 of its tests to 590 households in Kanpur, India.

Within a month of their use, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of houses that boil their water, use safer storage containers and use soap for washing their hands.

Oasis is also developing an app in which users can enter their water-quality results and that data will be uploaded to a cloud platform that can be accessed by universities, nonprofits, and governmental organizations who are dedicated to providing clean drinking water to developing countries.

“Right now, those institutions have virtually no water-quality data. The app-paired test, however, will give them water-quality data at scale for the first time, so they can get an idea of what’s going on and plan interventions in data-driven way,” Bir said.

With the prize money, Oasis will begin operations at a manufacturing facility already opened in Bangalore.

The facility will allow for production of 150,000 tests per year, which will be made available to its nine partner organizations, including UNICEF, Georgia Tech and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.

“Essentially, it’s about taking this product to at-scale production, for which we have all the preparation done. We just needed the money — and here we are,” Bir added.