[Health-tech Korea] The Wave Talk seeks real-time bacteria detection with laser sensor

By Sohn Ji-young
  • Published : Mar 4, 2018 - 18:07
  • Updated : Mar 6, 2018 - 09:04

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles highlighting South Korea’s promising startups in the emerging sectors of digital health care and next-generation medical devices. This is the 16th installment of "Health-tech Korea". - Ed.

Despite persistent public campaigns by municipal governments to promote clean tap water, South Koreans are known to refrain from drinking it or even using it for cooking.

Their heavy reliance on bottled water for consumption shows the lack of trust in water storage and safety mechanisms here.

One Seoul-based startup believes that could change, with technology that will enable real-time waterborne bacteria monitoring -- a laser sensor that can be attached inside water pipes to detect the existence of even tiny amounts of impurities.

“Our goal is to ensure the safety of water and food, which form the very essence of life,” said Kim Young-dug, co-founder and CEO of The Wave Talk, a Korean sensor technology startup. The firm is looking to introduce a new and improved bacteria detection method with applications across water safety, food inspection and even antibiotics diagnosis.

Kim Young-dug, co-founder and CEO of The Wave Talk (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The Wave Talk was co-founded by Kim and optical physics expert Park Yong-keun, both serial entrepreneurs and graduates of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

On the water safety front, the startup has developed a laser-based sensor that is able to catch impurities inside water pipe systems in real time, and with sensitivity higher than existing methods.

The laser sensor works by shining a laser beam through the water. When the light hits the water, it will travel in a certain pathway. If it runs into impurities on the way, such as bacteria, the light’s pathway changes. And this change is detected by the sensor through algorithms.

The Wave Talk’s device is able to find impurities that are too small to be noticed by conventional laser sensors. For instance, it is much harder to detect a single bacterium, than say 1,000 bacteria, through a laser scan because the light pathway change prompted by the bacteria is too minimal.

The Wave Talk’s laser sensor has overcome this issue by amplifying the unique refraction signal created by a subject, however small. This allows even the smallest particle to be detected and accounted for.

The technology can be applied to monitor tap water systems, as well as to ensure that liquids requiring absolute purity, such as bottled water or intravenous fluid, remain pollutant-free during production. The system can even be engineered to automatically shut off or deter the water flow, in case impurities are detected.

As of now, The Wave Talk has already sold its sensor system to clients, including a local bottled water maker and Coway which rents out purified water dispensers to households.

But its bigger business interests lie in monitoring tap water pipes. The startup has teamed up with Korea’s Nongshim Engineering and IBM Korea to apply its sensor to commercial tap water systems in Korea. The consortium is pursuing a joint project on this front with the Ministry of Environment and Korea Water Resources Corp., or K-Water.

After Korea, the firm wants to bring its sensor system to global markets. It plans to get its sensor technology system officially certified by K-Water, after which it can pitch the product to water authorities in other countries such as the US, Japan and China.

A demo of The Wave Talk`s real-time water impurity monitoring system (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

In addition to real-time waterborne bacteria sensing, The Wave Talk wants to apply its laser sensor technology to improve efficiency in other areas such as food inspection and antibiotics diagnosis.

Right now, fresh foods sold on the market, such as raw chicken meat, require a bacteria test based on “culturing.” The process involves taking a sample of chicken meat and juicing it. In the juice, you place food for the bacteria to feed on and wait for them to multiply.

After 48 hours, you count the colonies of bacteria in the dish. Under food safety regulations, the amount of bacteria per square milliliter has to remain below a specific figure to pass.

The Wave Talk believes it can replace this 48-hour culturing process with its laser scanner that is able to obtain the same information in just three hours, saving time and costs.

“Bacteria doubles in number every 30 minutes. Though it cannot be observed by the naked eye, the growth happens at a constant interval, Kim said. “Our goal is to observe the data for just three hours and predict how many bacteria will be present in 48 hours.”

The startup eyes similar efficiencies in the antibiotic prescription process. When a person has an unknown bacterial infection, physicians conduct tests to find the right type and dosage of an antibiotic that will kill the bacteria.

The current procedure involves taking a sample of blood from the infected person and multiplying the bacteria. Then, physicians spray the bacteria with different types of antibiotics lined up in varying dosages, and wait. If the bacteria don’t grow, the antibiotic is working.

On top of finding the effective antibiotic, the physicians have to find the “minimal inhibitory concentration,” to determine the right dosage to be used on the human patient.

The current procedure, which also uses a laser sensor, takes somewhere between 10 to 15 hours to complete, as it has to wait for the bacteria to multiply to a point where they can be detected.

However, The Wave Talk’s laser sensor offers 10,000 times greater sensitivity, and can therefore pick up the presence of bacteria without having to wait for them to form a colony. During a joint experiment with Chonbuk National University Hospital, the startup was able to determine the minimal inhibitory concentration in just under 45 minutes, Kim said.

The firm’s long-term goal is to be able to determine not only the presence of bacteria, but also classifying its type. Kim said the firm is aiming to identify the 12 types of bacteria most harmful to humans, such as salmonella and anthrax.

“The likelihood of survival from a bacterial infection drops by the hour. By diagnosing a given bacteria quicker, we can help find the right antibiotic for the infection faster, saving lives,” said the CEO.

The Wave Talk is currently backed by KAIST as well as a number of venture capital firms including Naver’s D2Startup Factory, Estech Pharma and Bluepoint Partners, among others. It is currently wrapping up its Series A funding round.

By Sohn Ji-young (