08. January 2020

The water testers

The company Blue Biolabs develops microbiology test kits for wells

Manuel Popiol (left) and Oliver Thronicker at their new laboratory in Adlershof © WISTA Management GmbH

Blue Biolabs GmbH moved to the Technology Park Adlershof in last autumn. The analysts at the company’s laboratories trace iron bacteria and other sources of water pollution.

Berliner Wasserbetriebe, Berlin’s public water company, paved the way for Biolabs in their start-up phase. The company deals with the iron clogging of water. Bacterial deposits of so-called iron bacteria frequently congest wells. Oliver Thronicker, one of the two CEOs of Blue Biolabs, originally studied technical environmental protection at Berlin’s Technical University (TU). ‘Back then I was a PhD student in microbiology, which I found really exciting,’ he says. In 2012, Thronicker and Manuel Popiol, his business partner, had a groundbreaking idea: why use methods that cost thousands of euros like deploying cranes and other heavy machinery, lifting heavy manhole covers, and lowering cameras down well shafts. There must be a simpler and more cost-effective way. And indeed, the lab staff at Blue Biolabs simply takes a water sample from the well, mixes it with a stabiliser, and then analyses it using advanced molecular biological methods. The test results indicate whether a well is clogged and requires regeneration.

To kick off their idea, Thronicker and Popiol applied for funding from the government’s EXIST programme. They were absolutely convinced: ‘This is a great business idea.’ However, says Thronicker, things turned out to be ‘quite hard.’ Creating a product is one thing but winning over customers and organising sales are also essential to success. When their university office grew too small last September, the two water experts moved to Adlershof’s Technology Park: ‘The conditions here are great.’ Seeing as their company required ‘biosafety level 2’ labs, they needed more than ‘off-the-shelf solutions.’

Today, the company and its eight employees cater for many business segments, including drinking water analysis, evaluation of biofilm, corrosion in heating systems, degradation processes in the oil industry, and hygiene issues in cooling systems, for instance, in supermarkets or large buildings. Most recently, Blue Biolabs developed a software for water providers. Interactive maps facilitate gleaning data on pollution caused by bacteria and germs that help to later analyse whether contamination and other events are related.

The company’s staff employs cutting-edge genetic methods for their environmental analyses, which currently account for about 30% of revenues. Thronicker and Popiol call their molecular-level comprehensive analysis kits ‘Blue Biome,’ which use DNA techniques to identify certain organisms, e.g., animal cells or fungi, and where they come from. These methods are also used for things like soil remediation and product testing, including food stuffs.

‘Whenever environmentally strange things happen somewhere, we can help to shed some light on them,’ says Thronicker. A more recent group of new customers are wastewater treatment operators. The company’s water experts can help them to map out how certain organisms change during the ‘activated sludge process’ in great detail. After just a few weeks, customers receive a full report listing groups, germs, effects, right up to antibiotic resistances. Regular monitoring can not only help to better understand such processes but also to control them.

The two CEOs are receiving more and more orders and constantly coming up with new ideas. Does that leave any time for leisure? Rarely. Manuel Popiol likes to let off steam with archery and fencing. Oliver Thronicker prefers relaxing at home with this family over a good movie.
Finally, the two environmental experts let us in on an everyday life hack: ‘Whenever you can, avoid drinking yesterday’s stale water and leave the water running before drinking it in the morning.’ When water goes stale, bacteria leave their biofilm and enter into the water phase. Sparkling water, on the other hand, is conserved by the carbon dioxide – which bacteria dislike.

By Kathrin Reisinger for Adlershof Journal