Most bacteria are fine

(10-06-2022) Ghent University spin-off Kytos can map the microbial health of an ecosystem to prevent diseases for fish and crop farming.

'Kytos looks at the entire microbial community and how it functions. In all ecosystems where microbes are essential to the process - think of aquaculture, soilless greenhouse farming 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 the outbreak of diseases and reduce production losses. In this way, fewer antibiotics need to be administered in the production of, for example, shrimp. That is not only good for the health of the animals and the consumers themselves, but it also makes a big difference to the environment.

The impact of bacteria

'Sometimes we don't realise the important role bacteria play in our daily lives,' says Nico Boon, professor of microbial ecology at the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Technology (CMET, faculty of Bioengineering, UGent). He is one of the founders of the Kytos' technology, and encouraged his then postdocs Ruben Props and Frederiek-Maarten Kerckhof to set up the spin-off.

'In a simple glass of water there are perhaps 10 to 100 million bacteria together. Those bacteria ensure that the quality of the water is good. Usually, when we think of bacteria, we assume that they make us sick. But the amount of bacteria that is actually bad for our health is a minority. You can compare it to our society. There are also criminals walking around in it, but that is a limited group,' explains Professor Boon.

This holistic vision typifies the founders of Kytos. They deploy the entire bacterial community to guarantee the health of an ecosystem. Professor Boon explains. Historically, we look for "bad" bacteria. When we find them, we intervene with biocides, chemicals or antibiotics. With KYTOS, we don't focus on that so much as we look at the balance between all types of bacteria, good and bad. Is the cooperation working well? Is this microbial society susceptible to certain diseases, or is everything under control? We consider ourselves to be social scientists in the microbial world.

'That is also where we differ from diagnostic labs that specifically look for diseases. We try to work preventively and to stimulate the bacteria to maintain the balance themselves as much as possible. From the moment we notice that things are beginning to go awry, and because we look at the entire community, we can also intervene much more quickly,' adds Frederiek-Maarten Kerckhof.

Sophisticated technology

The basis of Kytos' technology is a technique for measuring and studying microscopic particles occurring in a flowing liquid, called flow cytometry. This technique already existed. The added value of Kytos is the interpretation of that data on the basis of unique algorithms that quantify the health of an ecosystem,' Nico Boon explains.

When we start up with a client, we always begin by collecting a large quantity of samples, often at a fairly high frequency. Depending on how sensitive the ecosystem is to change, we determine how frequently 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 for us to mark characteristics of bacteria. Whereas an analysis used to take weeks, we can get the necessary results in 20 minutes. We can even do that online by linking devices to a particular ecosystem. This way, water samples are taken almost continuously, and the ecosystem is constantly monitored. In this way, we avoid a time-lapse between the time the sample is taken and the time it is examined in the lab. In the meantime, the microbial community may have changed completely.

Each ecosystem is also unique. Some shrimp ponds require tight control of algae, while others on the same farm have problems with specific bacteria. Our approach is entirely focused on providing our clients with personalised, actionable insights,' says Kerckhof. In our database we collect the unique microbial information per ecosystem. Through machine learning, the system learns continuously and we can make more and more predictive health assessments tailored to each ecosystem.

Aquaculture is the first market Kytos is targeting. Not only is it a global and fast-growing market, but microbial monitoring in aquaculture is also done very rarely. While the greatest losses are caused by micro-organisms,' Nico Boon explains. Today, diseases are mainly controlled by applying biocides. But even then, the losses remain high. It is estimated that half of the production is lost each year, which of course costs billions. The challenges are therefore enormous, but this means that we can also make a difference in this field quickly.

Major challenges in the transition from researcher to entrepreneur

Fifteen years ago, I certainly didn't think we were going to set up a company around this,' Nico Boon says. I was already thinking about how we could get more data from flow cytometry. But that idea has matured over time. Because we worked with drinking water companies from the beginning, we got a lot of positive feedback. When Frederiek-Maarten and Ruben, as more scientific collaborators within CMET, also became involved, things moved quickly. With financing from the Industrial Research Fund and the Ghent University Business developers, we first further substantiated the technology scientifically. Shortly after that, we started drawing up our business plan.

Helping Kytos get off the ground as a company was a logical step for me as a researcher,' says Ruben Props. We are and remain a technology company, so you are still doing research, but research with a specific aim, with a drive towards the market. Although there are also challenges, of course. As a researcher you sometimes want to dig too deep, while a customer is just looking for a solution to their problem. Making that translation is not always obvious. Plus you end up in a different context, where other rules and customs apply. That is an adjustment. But it gives a lot of energy and satisfaction to continue working on research to which you yourself have contributed.