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The Walder Foundation has awarded a Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) science team led by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) $1.25 million to develop a prototype capability for detecting COVID-19 outbreaks and trends in Chicago’s wastewater.

The goal of the Chicago Prototype Coronavirus Assessment Network Node, or PCANN, is to create a non-invasive, cost-effective way to examine community spread of the virus, by monitoring its initial appearance or changes over time in the city’s wastewater systems. Such monitoring should warn of emerging viral hotspots up to a week earlier than traditional testing of individuals, giving public health workers valuable time to mobilize.

“Our support of Chicago CAN brings together Chicago’s powerful scientific research community with public health officials and community leaders,” said Elizabeth Walder, president and executive director of the Walder Foundation, based in Skokie, Ill. “We’re trying to encourage collaboration in addressing the need for better data, more testing in underserved communities, as well as longer-term insights about how to prepare and respond to pandemics.”

Dr. Joseph Walder, the foundation’s co-founder, was a University of Iowa biochemistry professor before founding Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT), a biotech company that produces synthetic DNA and RNA for life science research and industry. The Walders sold IDT in 2018.

Earlier this year, the Walder Foundation issued a call for proposals for Chicago Coronavirus Assessment Network (Chicago CAN) and identified eight projects for funding that range from basic science to strategic testing in underserved communities. PCANN was one of the recipients of funding totaling $7.4 million.

“SARS-CoV-2 is detectable in human waste several days prior to symptoms, which appear 3-4 days after a person is infected. The presence of the virus in wastewater, then, can provide an early alert to the Chicago Department of Public Health regarding an outbreak or an upward trend in infections—up to a week before it would show up in data from individual testing,” said Rachel Poretsky, the DPI science team leader and an associate professor of biological sciences at UIC.

Coordinated through DPI, PCANN also includes collaborators from the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and scientists from Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Chicago.

“DPI Science Teams are meant to tap into the deep research expertise in the University of Illinois System and DPI’s partners towards addressing broader challenges for the city and state,” said DPI’s Interim Director of Research Venkat Venkatakrishnan. “The DPI R&D unit is excited about the Walder award for our science team working on wastewater research and wish them success in the PCANN project.”

Chicago CAN will support projects that aim to generate COVID-19 data and insights that will help better understand the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and inform public health policy.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Walder Foundation, applying the strength of one of our inaugural science teams to urgent work,” said DPI Executive Director Bill Jackson. “This project also exemplifies our goal of moving research into practice, in this case applying DPI expertise to help the of Chicago improve on planning and early intervention to disease outbreaks.”

For more information about Chicago CAN, visit:

About DPI
The Discovery Partners Institute empowers people to jumpstart their tech careers or companies in Chicago. Led by the University of Illinois System in partnership with top research universities, it does three things: Train people for high-demand tech jobs; conduct applied R&D; and support Chicago’s tech community. With state investment and a new innovation district in development, DPI has the resources to attract, develop and leverage the most ambitious people and companies the region has to offer — and keep them here.

About Walder Foundation
The Walder Foundation was established by Joseph and Elizabeth Walder to address critical issues impacting our world. The Foundation’s five areas of focus – science innovation, environmental sustainability, the performing arts, migration and immigrant communities, and Jewish life – are an extension of the Walders’ lifelong passions, interests, and their personal and professional experiences. The Foundation’s commitment to supporting scientific discovery is a continuation of Joseph Walder’s lifelong passion for research and scientific advancement. Joseph’s own career in biochemistry led him to establish a genomics company that supports agricultural, environmental, medical and life sciences research and development. Learn more at