A revolutionary solution to maritime sector health issues
Adonis Adoni 07:00 - 07 August 2023
EMBIO Diagnostics and Aquarex International have joined forces to infuse the maritime industry with EMBIO’s diagnostic prowess. Here, EMBIO founder Constantinos Loizou and the Director of Aquarex International, Jesper Bak Weller, explain how EMBIO’s diagnostic and monitoring devices are gamechangers as regards health and safety onboard ships.
It’s almost three years since I first met Constantinos Loizou in a café inside the Mall of Cyprus, where patrons sought solace from the sweltering May heat over an iced coffee. In its cool surroundings, we discussed his startup, EMBIO Diagnostics, and its groundbreaking B.EL.D. device. Distilled to its basics, the device enables testing for pesticide residue in foods, with unparalleled precision and results in a matter of minutes. Leveraging bioelectric sensors, it represented a quantum leap beyond traditional mass spectrometers that scanned for broad-spectrum pest-control compounds. This time around, the heat is even more sweltering but we are both keeping cool as my meeting with Loizou is being conducted online and the focus is on Aquarex Diagnostics, a recent joint venture between EMBIO and Limassol-based Aquarex International, a company that provides sustainable integrated diagnostic, sanitising and disinfection solutions to the shipping industry.
Rising above barriers
Reflecting on his first attempt – to tap into the agricultural sector – Loizou candidly shares the arduous lessons learned, poignantly stating that gaining a market slice in any field is fraught with formidable challenges. In the case of EMBIO, the only path to develop B.EL.D was through market adoption but the local market exhibited an unyielding reluctance to buy into a new, promising yet untested device.
While there is no definitive data enabling anyone to draw a clear picture of the volume of sales by domestic startups to local businesses in Cyprus, GOLD magazine’s comprehensive cover story on the startup scene (April 2023) revealed that this is a Catch-22 situation encountered by many Cypriot entrepreneurs. Indeed, it is akin to the plight of university graduates who, on entering the labour market, are confronted by an absurd array of prerequisites for job applications that can only be acquired through practical experience in that very job.
Loizou fervently advocates that Cyprus should take inspiration from its tech juggernaut neighbour Israel, where checking and validating homemade technologies by local businesses has become ingrained in their very fabric. “In Cyprus, we do not have a close-knit community that puts Cyprus-made products first,” he laments. And, while he takes immense pride in the cutting-edge allure of his products, he recognises that progress hinges on the indispensable role played by local companies (as well as centres of excellence and universities) in providing valuable feedback.
They are necessary stakeholders, forming the bedrock of a thriving ecosystem that propels innovation forward, nurturing a cycle of continuous development. Loizou’s passionate stance emanates from a deeply-held conviction that such collaborative synergies will not only fan the flames of innovation but will also bring a host of benefits to the bottom line of local companies, especially those lacking the financial muscle to survive the laborious and costly journey of developing innovation in-house. EMBIO’s story also exposes a harsh reality: shifts in behaviour only occur when compelled by external forces. Loizou draws a telling parallel, highlighting the situation precipitated by the pandemic, where the straightforward task of testing for the virus only gained traction when mandated by government authorities.
Despite the reluctance of the local market to take a chance on EMBIO, the startup has grown significantly, bolstered mainly by investments of more than €1 million from the VC firm KV Fund and valued-added distributor ASBIS. These, in turn, have led to access to the US and the EU markets, among others. At the same time, the biosensor technology underpinning EMBIO’s devices has allowed it to pivot into other sectors, including healthcare. Meanwhile, the startup had introduced another flagship product: AirBELD. This is a monitoring system that provides real-time understanding of indoor pollutants. As EMBIO grew in revenues and employees, though, it found itself stretched thin and fighting on multiple fronts. For Loizou, bringing in a new partner was not only a means to remain competitive and drum up more sales – inevitably making the startup a more attractive proposition for prospective investors – but it also expedited the process of infiltrating a new market.
The Aquarex factor
And this is where Jesper Bak Weller joins the conversation. With a seafaring legacy that goes back two generations, he has traversed the maritime landscape from different vantages, while his unique background as a marine engineer has endowed him with an acute grasp of the intricate interplay between the technical and commercial aspects of the shipping industry. He launched Aquarex International in 2020, choosing Limassol as its base of operations since a prominent client and key investors were already present on the island. As he succinctly explains, the company’s ethos rests upon a resolute commitment to offering services and products that safeguard our blue planet. To this end, Aquarex offers ships water filtration systems and devices that produce electrolysed water, which acts as an environmentally better alternative for cleaners and disinfectants, among other things.
The EU and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have enforced an array of directives and regulations aimed at preventing, protecting against, controlling and providing public health responses to the spread of diseases onboard ships. Among them are the 2007 IMO International Health Regulations and the 1998 EU Directive concerning the quality of consumable water. On top of that, the IMO International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments, which entered into force in September 2017, aims to prevent deleterious aquatic organisms and pathogens from hitchhiking through ships' ballast water. Indeed, the ever-mounting swell of regulatory pressure precipitated change within the industry, once again highlighting that change needs a push. The market, then, is ready for EMBIO’s technologies.
Diagnostic prowess onboard
According to Bak Weller, the B.EL.D and AirBELD devices will be packaged into a service called MicroGuard to detect and control bacteria, viruses and fungi onboard ships. He says, “They are particularly suited for leisure shipping. B.EL.D in particular can detect microorganisms on surfaces, in water and food, and with our other products, we can kill them.” For cruise ships, which can accommodate up to 5,000 passengers, the joint venture presents a proactive means to vigilantly monitor their environment. This boon is of paramount importance, especially considering the demographic composition, with a significant portion of the passengers over the age of 60, rendering them more susceptible to ailments. There are ample cases of Legionnaire’s Disease, notorious for crawling into water pipe systems, rendering passengers (and crew) sick.
“Leisure boats are constantly worried about bacteria and they are always on the lookout for ways to efficiently detect, monitor and kill them,” he notes. “Of course, except for air quality monitoring, there are various devices that can do the same thing but we believe that pour way is better.” According to Bak Weller, most of their competitors test for both live and dead bacteria, resulting in false positives, which then creates a problem out of thin air that costs time and money to solve. EMBIO’s device, though, only tests for live bacteria. The other benefit is that it provides an instant answer. This is especially important with bacteria because conventionally, samples are taken and grown in laboratories; from an environmental point of view, there is also no need to transport the sample, which can lead to further complications. In addition, the device can specify the nature of the microorganisms, which will then influence remedial action.
Indeed, Bak Weller stresses, this is relevant not only to shipowners, but also to the authorities, classification companies, and everyone in the supply chain that wants to control or check for microorganisms. To this end, the B.EL.D device can verify the efficiency of the ballast water treatment used by merchant ships, as specified by the IMO regulation. “We are selling B.EL.D equipment for merchant ships with a ballast water kit, and to leisure ships with a surface kit. We can detect bacteria in both worlds with the same equipment, essentially; it is just a question of changing the kit. So, with EMBIO equipment onboard, you can use it for various purposes.”
As for the AirBELD device, he is adamant that air quality monitoring is an upcoming megatrend. Tangible proof of his claim is the fact that companies like IKEA, known for their extensive market surveys before releasing a product, have introduced similar devices for home use. EU Directives are also pushing for more control of air quality in enclosed spaces, from offices to schools and hospitals. “There is a lot of evidence that air quality has a huge influence on the efficiency of the human brain and body,” he notes. Nonetheless, he is quick to admit that, for the time being, air quality monitoring is more relevant to leisure than merchant shipping. While it is too soon to speak about sales, Bak Weller already has clients lined up. “We are speaking with the largest companies in the industry and there is a lot of interest in the MicroGuard service,” he notes.
Best of both worlds
Both men agree that a joint venture relationship is like a marriage – trust and communication are fundamental. One could also make the case that, much as iron and carbon are combined to create steel, the parties in a joint venture leverage each other’s unique properties to create something greater than the sum of their parts. On Aquarex’s side, being close to the IP owner will eventually enable it to become a co-developer. Of course, as Bak Weller notes, this kind of marriage only works when the two partners are on the same journey and at similar stages in their life cycles. “You could argue, why not partner with Apple? It’s great, but you have to be ready to play a much smaller part in the partnership,” he says. EMBIO Diagnostics is clearly an ideal partner, as Constantinos Loizou is the first to admit. “We are experts at development, whereas Aquarex knows how to bring the product to the client: in this case, the maritime industry,” he stresses, with a smile of satisfaction.