Most bacteria are good – TechTransfer – Ghent University

‘With Kytos, we look at the whole microbial community and how it works. In all ecosystems where microbes are essential to the process – just think of aquaculture, soil-free greenhouse cultivation or hydroponics… – we try to get these problems under control, says Ruben Props, CEO and co-founder of Kytos. ‘Because we are able to detect changes quickly, we can prevent disease outbreaks and reduce production losses. In this way, smaller antibiotics must be administered in the manufacture of e.g. prawns. Not only is it good for animal and consumer health, but it also makes a big difference to the environment. ‘

The effect of bacteria

“Sometimes we are not aware of the important role that bacteria play in our daily lives,” explains Nico Boon, professor of microbial ecology at the Center for Microbial Ecology and Technology (CMET, Faculty of Life Sciences, Ghent University). He is one of the founders of Kytos’ technology and encouraged his then postdocs Ruben Props and Frederiek-Maarten Kerckhof to create the spin-off.

‘A simple glass of water can contain 10 to 100 million bacteria. These bacteria ensure that the quality of the water is good. Usually, when we think of bacteria, we assume that bacteria make us sick. But the amount of bacteria that are effectively bad for our health is a minority. You can compare it to our society. There are also criminals around, but it is a limited group, “explains Professor Boon.

This holistic vision characterizes the founders of Kytos. They use the entire bacterial community to guarantee the health of an ecosystem. Professor Boon explains. “Historically, we look for ‘bad’ bacteria. If we find them, we intervene with biocides, chemicals or antibiotics. With KYTOS, we do not focus so much on it, but look at the balance between all types of bacteria, good and bad. the collaboration is good? Is the microbial community susceptible to certain diseases, or is everything under control? That’s why we consider ourselves a bit like social scientists in the microbial world. ‘

“This is also where we differ from diagnostic laboratories that specifically look for diseases. We try to work preventively and stimulate the bacteria to maintain the balance as much as possible. From the moment we notice that things are starting to go wrong, and because we are looking at the whole of society, we can intervene much faster, ”adds Frederiek-Maarten Kerckhof.

Progressive technology

The basis of Kytos’ technology is a technique for measuring and study microscopic particles that occur in a flowing fluid, called flow cytometry. “This technique already existed. The added value of Kytos is the interpretation of this data on the basis of unique algorithms that quantify the health of an ecosystem,” says Nico Boon.

“When we start with a customer, we always start by collecting a large amount of samples, often with a fairly high frequency. Depending on how sensitive the ecosystem is to change, we determine how often we need to take samples to adequately monitor the balance of the entire microbial community. We add a dye to the sample, which makes it easier to mark the properties of bacteria. Where an analysis used to take weeks, we gathered the required results in 20 minutes. We can even do it online by connecting devices to a specific ecosystem. For example, water samples are taken almost continuously and the ecosystem is monitored on an ongoing basis. In this way, we avoid a timelapse between the moment the sample is taken and when it is examined in the laboratory. In the meantime, the microbial community may have changed completely. ‘

Each ecosystem is also unique. Some shrimp ponds require strict control of algae, while other ponds on the same farm mainly have problems with specific bacteria. “Our approach is completely focused on giving our customers personal, action-oriented insight,” says Kerckhof. ‘In our database we collect the unique microbial information per. ecosystem. The system learns continuously through machine learning, and we can do better and better tailor-made predictive health assessments for each ecosystem. ‘

Aquaculture is the first market that Kytos is venturing into. It is not just a global and fast-growing market,microbial monitoring is also performed very little in aquaculture. “While the biggest losses are caused by microorganisms,” explains Nico Boon. ‘Today, diseases are fought mainly by administering biocides. But the losses are still high. It is estimated that half of the production is lost every year, which of course costs billions. The challenges are therefore enormous, but it means that we can also quickly make a difference in this area. ‘

Biggest challenges in the transition from researcher to entrepreneur

“15 years ago, I certainly did not think we should establish a company around this,” says Nico Boon. ‘I was already thinking about how we could get more data from flow cytometry. But that idea has matured over time. Since we have been working with drinking water companies from the start, we got a lot of positive response. When Frederiek-Maarten and Ruben also started contributing as scientific collaborators within CMET, it went fast. With funding from the Industrial Research Foundation and UGent Business Developers, we have further scientifically substantiated the technology. Shortly afterwards, we set about drawing up our business plan. ‘

“Helping Kytos as a company from the ground up was a logical step for me as a researcher,” says Ruben Props. ‘We are and will be a technology company, so you are still doing research, but research with a specific goal, with a drive towards the market.’ Of course, there are also challenges. “As a researcher, sometimes you want to dig too deep while a client is just looking for a solution to his problem. Making that translation is not always easy. Plus you end up in a different context where different rules and customs apply. It’s an adjustment. But it gives a lot of energy and satisfaction to continue working with research that you yourself have contributed to. ‘

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