COVID-sniffing robots offer a testing alternative, startup bets

Kristen V Brown

BLOOMBERG – A biotechnology start-up called Koniku is trying to develop robots that could sniff out COVID-19 infections faster than conventional testing.

The technology fuses neurons with a silicon chip to create a “smell cyborg” capable of detecting scents ranging from explosives to pathogens.

Koniku’s first clinical trial began three weeks ago and will examine samples from patients tested for COVID-19 to compare how well the smell-bot detects the virus compared with traditional methods. Small internal trials have already demonstrated that it can accurately detect the presence of influenza A.

“Our goal is to have a device that merges synthetic biology with silicon and maps all of the smells of human life on a global scale,” said San Rafael, California-based company’s Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder Oshiorenoya Agabi. “We should have a device in every home in America to screen for disease.”

Pathogens produce unique volatile organic compounds, scent-fingerprints of a sort, released by ailing cells. These signature smells are the same biological clues that allow dogs to sniff out dozens of diseases. Finland tested the ability of dogs to detect COVID-19 in a trial at Helsinki’s airport last month.

Some researchers have suggested that using dogs could be cheaper, faster and even potentially more effective in screening for the disease than methods including temperature checks, nasal swabs and saliva. In July, German researchers showed trained dogs were able to distinguish between saliva sampled from people infected with the virus and those who were not more than 90 per cent of the time.

Koniku’s device, the Konikore, is slightly smaller than a frisbee and resembles a flying saucer. When the proteins in its chip bind to a scent it has been programmed to detect, cells amplify and process those signals with help from machine learning, and the device lights up.

Koniku’s Konikore scent-detection device. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG