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Sentinel Turns “Pain Points” into Progress

Updated: Jun 5

Many unexpected innovations emerged from the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Sherin Kannoly, transitioning from the monotony of lockdown to the intense, backbreaking work of testing New York City treatment plant wastewater for the COVID virus led to the breakthrough concept that would become Sentinel.

Sherin Kannoly, PhD

Having received his undergraduate degree in microbiology in Mumbai, where he grew up, and a PhD from SUNY Albany in virology, Kannoly moved to New York City and joined Dr. John Dennehy’s lab at CUNY Queens College in 2018.


When Covid hit in 2020, he isolated at home, like so many. “Dr. Dennehy called and told me, ‘I have an interesting project—NYC treatment plants will be sending us their wastewater; the challenge is to isolate and purify the COVID virus causing the pandemic.’ I said to myself, this is exciting—where do I sign up?” said Kannoly.


“I thought this was a good opportunity and a great way to contribute,” he said. “At that point we had no ability to predict what the trajectory of the pandemic was going to be.” 


Before the pandemic there was a basic protocol for doing this kind of work. Kannoly and his team, back in the lab as essential workers, tweaked it, and within a few weeks they were able to detect the virus throughout NYC.


“If you can estimate how many virus particles are in a sample, the value is that you can tell the city where the levels in the wastewater are,” explained Kannoly. “If they are increasing, you can prepare for an impending peak of cases. We showed the City’s Department of Environmental Protection our protocol and data and they were impressed; they asked us to train their team using our protocol.”


“Our approach was working, but I realized that it was backbreaking work, to put it mildly,” added Kannoly. “Wastewater is a difficult medium—it has everything in it! There’s no way to know what people are flushing down the toilet. The process of isolating the samples is challenging. The smell is terrible, and the budget for our work was very limited—most resources were dedicated to patients. Also, we didn’t know then that the COVID in the wastewater was already inactive, so we were taking all kinds of extra precautions that were tedious and cumbersome. I realized the work was just too labor intensive—and that wasn’t sustainable.” 


He was bothered by this and began pondering how the work could be both simplified and brought to scale. Kannoly also realized that as the pandemic abated and the viral numbers went down, they would need to process increasingly large volumes of water, and that would be nearly impossible, as it would require the transportation of large amounts of hazardous waste. Kannoly began to explore alternative methods to test for the presence of the coronavirus and reduce the need to transport hazardous waste.


“I realized that there were two big pain points—the intensity of the labor, and the challenge of transporting hazardous waste,” said Kannoly. He conceived of and created a prototype device—small enough to fit in your hand—that holds a chemical matrix and can be put directly in wastewater at the treatment plant. It traps the virus particles and can be easily transported; while the material is still hazardous, it is much easier to contain and stabilize.


“Once we have our device back at the lab, we use our propriety chemicals to enable efficient extraction of RNA from the trapped viruses,” he said. “Then we test for COVID or other viruses, bacteria, or fungi.  When I presented my idea to Dr. Dennehy, he said I should get some IP for it—that this was a new idea that hadn’t been done before. The CUNY Commercialization Office helped us to apply for a provisional patent.”

Kannoly used a simple analogy to describe how his innovation works. “Imagine a magnet in a river,” he said. “Now imagine there are small bits of iron floating down the river—the items will stick to the magnet. Depending on how long you leave it in the river, eventually, it’s covered with iron. That’s what my device does—except instead of iron, it binds viruses. It stays in the wastewater for 24 hours; when it’s removed there’s a solid trap of all the viruses present in the water.”


It didn’t take long for the opportunity of testing the concept with I-Corps to present itself. “John Blaho [Program Director of the New York NSF I-Corps Hub, led by CUNY,] got to know about us because our work for the city got some media coverage,” Kannoly added. “He encouraged our team to take part in a NY Regional I-Corps Spring in 2022. After that, he recommended us to National I-Corps; we did that in 2023.”


During customer discovery, Kannoly and his team spoke to scientists and engineers doing similar work across the United States, including teams that they had been in touch with over the pandemic while sharing best practices.


“Other environmental agencies in other states were facing similar challenges,” he added. “They gave us contacts of other colleagues, and it was a snowball effect of getting more and more people to talk to.”  They also spoke to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.


For Kannoly, one of the biggest surprises from the I-Corps process was learning how stuck in their ways some customers were. “They were not even thinking about fixing this problem, just doing the same thing they had done for decades, resistant to trying something new,” shared Kannoly.


The customer discovery process also revealed potential private sector clients for their technology. “Aquaculture and fisheries are big business; at the high end they are very particular about their water and want to detect bacteria as early as possible so they can save more animals and avoid losses,” said Kannoly


“We also realized that Sentinel would have to be a service-based business, where the testing is contracted to private entities,” he added. “We are now working on a second prototype, which will attract viruses with greater efficiency. We also have concrete evidence that we can identify monkeypox and flu.”


Sentinel is now testing its prototype in partnership with New York Health and Hospitals, which operates the public hospitals and clinics in New York City as a public benefit corporation.

They are also partnering with the department of health for a Colorado municipality, seeking to use Sentinel’s technology and service to detect outbreaks in schools. In the Colorado pilot, they are testing wastewater in select pipes in certain sections or floors of buildings, instead of waiting for it to go to a treatment plant.


The company has filed a non-provisional patent and expects to learn whether it will be approved by later this year.  “Our goal is to eventually produce the testing device and provide the servicing, and sell that to both government and private clients,” said Kannoly.


Sentinel plans to apply for an NIH STTR grant by fall. If they are successful in doing so, the company will apply those new resources to research and development as well as improving the design and making further prototypes. Sentinel continues to leverage post I-Corps services through the NYC Innovation Hot Spot by participating in the SBIR/STTR Assistance programs.


“Ultimately, what we offer is much cheaper than other options,” he added. “It’s really an unbeatable price when you consider the time and labor savings we’re delivering. We know what the pain points are because we went through them ourselves—and we solve them!”







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