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The Inventivity Pod
Identifying Water Pathogens Quickly and Cheaply
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Detecting diseases in water is harder than it sounds. The normal process involves expensive, time-consuming lab tests. Joseph Moss of the University of West Florida has invented a better method that spins out water-borne pathogens to help identify them quickly and cheaply. A native of Holland, Pennsylvania and the youngest of five children, Moss was a “fidgety” boy who loved being outside because “everything fascinated me.”  After a “rambunctious phase” and a “dead-end” job on the West Coast, Moss, who had initially failed out of college, returned to school and became a researcher.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade, the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade who invented gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them. We’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Today we’re entering the spin zone. Now you haven’t accidentally downloaded a political podcast. I’m talking about literal spin as in an invention called a spin concentrator. And we’re pleased to have the inventor on the show today. Joseph Moss, who is a researcher at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Welcome to Radio Cade, Joe.

Joseph Moss:

Thanks for having me.

Richard Miles:

So, Joe, I think I last saw you in 2012 or 2013 maybe when you were a sweet 16 finalist or you just finished being a finalist in the Cade prize. And I remembered the judges were very impressed with your entry, though I have to admit, I didn’t really fully understand how it worked at the time. So I think, I know after having been through the prize, but I’m going to roll this description by you. Tell me where I’m wrong. Um, but I’ll ask you to elucidate now, so I know it’s a type of water filter which basically can detect a disease producing organisms in water. Um, and that is essentially the core function of it. But what I don’t fully understand, you can explain, is sort of how does this differ from other existing water filters and you know, what is, um, you know, what is unique about it? Obviously there’s something unique because you’ve had some commercial success with this. So let me stop there and let you tell us and tell listeners what exactly a spin concentrator is.

Joseph Moss:

Okay. Well you’ve got it mostly right. Um, it is a spin concentrator or spin device, um, which simply separates particles, microbial particles, whether it’s our actual microorganisms or um, nonliving microbial, uh, particulates. Doesn’t matter. It depends on the researcher what they want to do. It helps it aids in the separation of these particles so that you can subsequently down the line, evaluate your samples and see whether that pathogen or microbe or particle exists. So it doesn’t detect the organism itself. It helps in the process. It speeds it up.

Richard Miles:

I see. Okay.

Joseph Moss:

It’s a simple, fast way of doing it.

Richard Miles:

So traditionally, like what, um, you know, previous to this, what is for the traditional way of doing what you have to take like a water sample and send it out to a lab in order to do the same things.

Joseph Moss:

Yes. So the current method is the one that’s set up by the EPA that’s warranted for all the labs to use. It’s called EPA method 1600. Uh, I think it’s 1600. I forget the exact number, but basically it’s been around for let’s say two decades now. Um, or almost two decades. It’s long, it’s convoluted, it takes expertise and it’s not cost efficient. So…

Richard Miles:

So in a typical scenario like let’s say a, you know, post disaster relief or or something like that, if you’re trying to measure concentrations of water, it would involve some sort of long delay or just additional cost.

Joseph Moss:

It wouldn’t work because there’d be too many samples and not enough, um, scientists to get it done. It takes 24 hours to do a few samples with the current method. Cause what happens is… I’ll briefly explain it. First you have to filter the water and then after you’re done filtering the water, that costs about 60 to $100 for that filter.

Richard Miles:

Wow.

Joseph Moss:

Yes. Okay. Then it gets even more expensive. Then you had to back flush that filter and basically spend that water sample down to a certain amount, about 10 milliliters. Then you have to use a kit that has antibodies that are specific for the micro organisms, let’s say cryptosporidium and Giardia, the reason why I built this device. That takes a few hours. It works well but takes a few hours and you’re adding another $60 maybe $100. And then after that you have to stain the organisms and then you have to put it onto a slide and then you have to have an experienced scientists to evaluate that slide to determine whether or not those organisms are on that slide.

Richard Miles:

And so this obviously all has to take place in a lab setting, right?

Joseph Moss:

Yes.

Richard Miles:

Okay. And if I understand your invention, there’s a handheld version of it or is that…

Joseph Moss:

Well, my version is set up for molecular techniques. So the current method uses microscopy so they had to look under a microscope.

Richard Miles:

Okay.

Joseph Moss:

And so you have to be trained to be able to identify it. But nowadays we can do things genetically and we can find out what’s in the water by just having DNA markers. All right, it’s pretty standard now. But, uh, the EPA is slow and we still have this one method I’ve been pushing as long as, as well as some other scientists to “let’s come on, let’s go, let’s get into the molecular field because it’s a lot quicker.”

Richard Miles:

So does that mean that somebody, a volunteer or someone who’s not a scientist could use your device and come up with valid results? Or would they still at some point… would a researcher have to step in.

Joseph Moss:

They would need some training. But they wouldn’t have to have the training in order to identify the protozoa. That takes hours and hours of training to have that eye to be able to identify what’s there.

Richard Miles:

Okay. So really we’re talking sort of speed and cost.

Joseph Moss:

Speed and cost per sample for the EPA method between $400 to $500. That’s the last I checked and that was a few years ago.

Richard Miles:

And that’s just a single sample?

Joseph Moss:

That’s a single sample.

Richard Miles:

Okay. So if you’re in an area in which you need to do multiple samples, you’re talking about big price.

Joseph Moss:

So if there’s an epidemic, there’s going to be spending a lot of money.

Richard Miles:

Yeah. It’s interesting cause you know, I think, um, it’s pretty obvious, right? We’ve known that waterborne pathogens and dirty water is a huge problem, particularly in third world. But it seems like it’s taken a while for the sort of quicker, faster, cheaper methods to develop of, of making sure that people in underdeveloped countries have access to clean water. It’s an issue, it hasn’t been an issue in the first one for a long time. Right? I mean…

Joseph Moss:

Yeah, that’s correct.

Richard Miles:

Okay. So great. So now I think I understand the technology better. I hope our listeners do. Um, let’s go back in time to sort of, um, pre academic Joe Moss. So where are you from? Where’d you grow up? What were you like as a kid?

Joseph Moss:

Uh, originally I’m from Bucks County, PA, a town called Holland, uh, right on the outskirts of Philadelphia. I was born and raised there and stayed there until I was about 21. I was a fidgety, outdoorsy, kind of, not spastic, but I’d like to go out and play and enjoy life. And there’s plenty of streams and rivers and creeks and fields and, uh, tree nurseries everywhere for someone like me to…

Richard Miles:

So when you, when you went outside were you interested in the natural world. Did you just like being outside or did you already have an inkling that you liked water, you’d like to study things or not really?

Joseph Moss:

Everything fascinated me, it’s just going out and just playing and seeing everything. “Wow, look at that! Wow, look at that!” and “Wow, a crayfish! Oh look at that, a salamander!” But yeah, okay. Water was a little bit more… it influenced me more when I went to see when it was in water and like rivers and lakes, you’re always guessing. It’s kinda like fishing. You’re wondering what’s down there. You throw your line and your, you’re always inquisitive of what’s down there, what’s going on. Imagine as a kid, you know.

Richard Miles:

How did you do in school? Were you drawn towards science type classes or biology?

Joseph Moss:

I was always good at science and math.

Richard Miles:

Really, okay. From the very beginning.

Joseph Moss:

Yes.

Richard Miles:

Were your parents, uh, also researchers?

Joseph Moss:

No.

Richard Miles:

Really. Okay. What did your parents do for a living?

Joseph Moss:

My mother was a stay at home mom. Five kids. She had her work cut out for her. My father worked at Philadelphia Electric Company, so he was kinda like the Homer Simpson. He was behind it. Yeah, exactly. He was behind there with the dials and he worked long shifts and you drive all the way to the inner city of Philadelphia and do 12 hours, 16 hour shifts and come back.

Richard Miles:

And what number child were you in?

Joseph Moss:

Number five.

Richard Miles:

Number five. Okay.

Joseph Moss:

Yeah, I was the little one.

Richard Miles:

So you’re like the, you’re like the Hail Mary pass, right? Um, any of your other siblings, did they go into research or science at all?

Joseph Moss:

No. Well engineering, it was close enough but no, the rest were teaching, accounting. So engineering was the closest one.

Richard Miles:

Engineering, okay. So how did you make the long journey from Pennsylvania to Pensacola? We got all the time in the world here, Joe.

Joseph Moss:

I got a little rambunctious and then forgot about as a teenager you forget about, you get involved in something and other teenage aspects and you forget about your true passions when you were younger. So, um, it took me a while to find my way back. I did some traveling and then later on in the west coast when I was working at a dead end job, I decided, well, I can’t do this. I need, I was like, what was I interested? Oh, that’s right. I love biology. And actually my mom, she’s kind of reminded me, she’s like, why don’t you go back to school? I’m like, yeah, you know, I should, and it wasn’t that easy, but basically I noticed that I didn’t want to do the basic nine to five, so I was like, I need to get back and get my degree.

Richard Miles:

Was this your undergraduate degree you’re talking about or…

Joseph Moss:

Yes, so I was off the beaten path for a little while. I actually failed out my first college and then I realized, okay, um, you know, I need to buckle down. It took a little while.

Richard Miles:

And uh, when you did decide to buckle down, did you know right away you wanted to go into a science related field?

Joseph Moss:

Oh absolutely.

Richard Miles:

Um, okay, let’s fast forward now to your research. Um, at what point, um, was there a certain point when you sort of had the inspiration for the spin concentrator or did you sort of iterate your way to, it was a series of steps or did you kind of have, you know, one of those classic Aha moments, but I’m not sure how often it actually happens, but you know, some people say they had an insight because they heard something. You know…

Joseph Moss:

Actually, the whole impetus of this was because of Dr. Richard Snyder. He was my boss and my mentor. He had a grant, a small grant to work with microbes, particularly Giardia and cryptosporidium to find a better way. Uh, at the time before I started working with him, he had a postdoc working there who was trying to make the molecular technique better. And more efficient, but it was actually the wrong path. So that postdoc left for another job or something I forget. And Richard Snyder called me up and said, you know, I have a position open. So I went there after a little while. Uh, with his help we decided that the molecular technique wasn’t a problem. It was the precursor was the separation of the microbes because a lot of water is turbid. So it’s really hard to find. It’s like getting a needle in a haystack.

Richard Miles:

Right.

Joseph Moss:

So that’s the hard part. So we worked on that.

Richard Miles:

And once you go through the separation, then it becomes easier.

Joseph Moss:

It gets easier for the molecular techniques to work.

Richard Miles:

Okay.

Joseph Moss:

Because even though molecular techniques were great, um, there’s always problems with inhibition because you have certain things in the water, like Tannins, I can go on and on… acids and whatnot, and it just interferes with the chemical process.

Richard Miles:

And so were you already at University of West Florida at the time or did you, you were invited by Dr. Snyder to come there?

Joseph Moss:

I left the University of West Florida to get a job at the EPA as a contractor, a biologic contractor. My contract was ending and I was actually going to go work in Alaska as a fisheries observer.

Richard Miles:

Really?

Joseph Moss:

Yeah. I was almost gone. I was, it was like a day or two and I was going to leave to go up there to train for the position and he called me up and you know, lucky for me, I mean not there’s anything wrong being in Alaska, but I really wanted to stay in Pensacola.

Richard Miles:

It’s funny, when I was in undergraduate school and University of Washington in Seattle a popular summer job for people who were from Washington was go up and work on the fishing boats in Alaska. And so I thought, well, you know, I’m going to do that. And so I put in an application, never heard back from anyone. Then I found out years later, it’s like one of the most dangerous occupations on the face of the earth. Fishing boat in Alaska, you know, I mean there’s a whole bunch of occupational hazards. It did pay very well and that’s what attracted me. But I’m sure that took one look at my thin CV and the fishing department and that’s why I never had a call back. Well that’s cool. So you stayed there and then obviously it has become, it just reached a degree of success. You, you did make the Cade Prize finals in 2012 and then soon after that, right, you signed a licensing deal.

Joseph Moss:

Yes we did.

Richard Miles:

And so tell me about that process. I mean, they obviously liked your technology, but, uh, did you come up with this deal on your own or did UWF did they give you help or…

Joseph Moss:

No, actually it was a lot who you know, and uh, people talk and a friend of mine, Andres Knocker, he was my mentor when I was going through my grad degree, he called me up and said, hey, I know some guys that are interested, um, you should speak to them. So I did. And these were the guys at Scottish water, so they were interested in buying two of the devices just to try it out. So it was like, great. So I actually flew over there…

Richard Miles:

To Scotland.

Joseph Moss:

Yes. Edinburgh. Went over there, spent a couple of days with them, showed them the device, showed how it worked, explained everything. And then we, uh, did some basic science stuff and went out and had a dinner and you know, the normal stuff. And then after that, uh, it turned out there was some guys in Barcelona, that were interested as well. And I was like, well, im already in Edinburgh, I’ll fly over to Barcelona. So the guy picked me up and this was a wild story that I’ll sum up. He picks me up and brings me to their manufacturing place in Terasa. And I go there, they’re showing me around being polite as Europeans mostly are, and I’m looking around great. And um, next thing I know, they bring me into this room and there’s 10 to 12 guys and they’re sitting down and like, “Okay, you ready? Are you ready to talk about the device?” I’m like, “Wow, okay. Uh, all right.” So I sit down and they closed the door and I’m like, I start getting intimidated. I’m looking at it like, did you do, uh, do you have a PowerPoint? I’m like, “no, this is my first time ever doing…” I didn’t tell him this

Richard Miles:

This sounds like nightmare.

Joseph Moss:

Uh, it’s funny now. Um, so I just thought to myself, all right, I’m here. Uh, just speak the truth. Just tell them. I mean, I loosened up in about a minute. I just, I talked to him for about five minutes and they all just listened tentatively. And then I stopped, sat back. I said, well that’s it. And all of a sudden across the table, back and forth in Spanish. I could, I couldn’t keep up and thank God one of the guys just looked at me and said, relax, we’re spit balling. I was like, that’s fine. I took a glass of water.

Richard Miles:

This is all in Spanish.

Joseph Moss:

Oh yeah, I’m not, I’m not fluent in Spanish. German, I would have done better, but not Spanish and we’re spit balling. I’m like, fine. Take your time. About five minutes later they looked at me and he said, oh, “We like it. We’d like to do a deal.”

Richard Miles:

Wow.

Joseph Moss:

And that was it. And I was like…

Richard Miles:

Easiest pitch ever.

Joseph Moss:

I know. I was like, and then we went out to dinner. We had tapas.

Richard Miles:

So based on that Joe, I’m guessing that either you are the most fantastic presenter in the world or uh, and or the technology kind of explains itself. I mean it sounds like for somebody in, I take it this is a company, a utility company or that the technology is so, uh, you know, blindingly better or obviously better that it kinda just as soon as you explain how it works, they sold out.

Joseph Moss:

I wasn’t just that it was because it was already developed, they saw the, what’d you call it?

Richard Miles:

Uh, they saw the prototype.

Joseph Moss:

I showed him the prototype, but they also saw how they can change and make it better cause it was prototype number one or two that they saw, I had the pieces and I showed them step by step. And they’re engineers. They saw value to it and it wasn’t, I wasn’t asking much. It was…

Richard Miles:

So, interesting. Was it all engineers in the room or would, was there some like deal maker types in there, executives who…

Joseph Moss:

I think it was all engineers plus the owners of the business. It was everyone. Uh, yeah, it was, it’s funny now I was for about two minutes. I was terrified.

Richard Miles:

So let me get this straight. You’re in Scotland. You’ve done your pitch. Did you ever hear from the Scots again?

Joseph Moss:

Yup

Richard Miles:

Okay. Did you do deal with them as well or?

Joseph Moss:

Well, they bought the device. They wanted to look at it and try it out.

Richard Miles:

And then just sort of on the fly you get another tip to go to Barcelona.

Joseph Moss:

Well, to be honest, I knew about a week or two ahead of time, but it was, it was almost…

Richard Miles:

Wow. Okay. Well I bet lots of entrepreneurs would love to have that story. Usually, you know, it’s years and years of going to these pitch contests and things like the Cade Prize to get your name out there before anybody, you know, uh, does a deal like that. Well, congratulations. It’s um, it’s kind of a big deal. Are you still, uh, still refining that technology you or have you moved on to other research projects?

Joseph Moss:

I’ve moved on. It’s being used or it was being used. I have to check Tampa, not Tampa. It was used at Tampa Water Department, but it was just recently being used at the Los Angeles Water Department. Uh, things have slowed there cause they ran out of money, but I’m still using it and there’s other applications it can be used for so… but no, I have other studies I work on too

Richard Miles:

Anything that you think has commercial potential at this point on?

Joseph Moss:

No, no. Um, a lot of boring stuff that you’re listeners wouldn’t want to listen to about or like the diversity of bacteria in the ocean. You know, that’s not like a barn burner, but that’s what I work on.

Richard Miles:

So have you had, um, has anyone of your fellow researchers in your field or not heard of your success and said, hey Joe, give us tips. You know, how do we, how do we do this? How do we commercialize our research?

Joseph Moss:

No, no. They don’t want it. I have a big enough head as it is.

Richard Miles:

They don’t want to encourage you.

Joseph Moss:

I mean it’s all good fun, but it’s…

Richard Miles:

This sort of story warms our hearts, particularly at the Cade Museum because as part of the mission of what the Cade is about, trying to basically, um, help or encourage or inspire whatever word you want to use, researchers to take a look at their research and see, you know, what are the commercial possibilities. Um, cause it’s really a lot of times through commercialization, right, does technology actually gets out into the wider world because companies are using it or individuals are using it. So Joe, thank you very much for coming on Radio Cade today. Look forward to watching your progress in the years to come. And probably all those things you say are too boring for the public we’ll all be using in five or 10 years

Joseph Moss:

Maybe.

Richard Miles:

Hopefully in Africa because they need it the most. Exactly right. We’ve had, we’ve had other Cade, a lot of actually Cade Prize entrants have dealt with the subject of clean water coming at it from one angle or another. Um, so it’s, it’s definitely topic as you said, particularly for areas of the world in which it’s not standard. Uh, thanks very much for joining us. Congratulations once again, on your success and then look forward to having you on the show again.

Joseph Moss:

Thank you very much.

Richard Miles:

Thanks for listening. I’m Richard Miles

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support. Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating and inventor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcasts and music theme. Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song featuring violinist Jacob Lawson. And special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.

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