Spotlight: small matters

Materials World magazine
3 Oct 2016

Ellis Davies talks to Andrew Monk, Co-Founder of ioLight, about the world’s first folding portable digital microscope.

Tell me about your background.

I have an MA in Physics from University of Oxford, UK, and I am passionate about the subject. I am mainly concerned with how physics can make society better – theoretical physics is interesting, but it doesn’t really help the world much, yet. For my entire career I have looked into new technologies and how to get them into the market, leading me to a number of start-up companies over the past 20 years, which were mainly spinouts from universities. 

How did this project begin? 

Around 15 years ago, I was working at the University of Southampton, UK, when I bumped into another Oxford physicist, Richard Williams, and helped him to set up his first company. We went our separate ways, and four years ago, we met again. At the time, Richard was working on a project for a client and realised
that he didn’t have a microscope that could do the job. In this instance, a cheap microscope wasn’t good enough, and a high-end alternative was too expensive and complicated. We thought, why is there no good quality, portable low-cost microscope? Richard, whose background is in optical fibres, built a microscope at his desk, which we filed a patent for in March 2014 as the world’s first folding portable digital microscope – ioLight. 

How was the project funded?

The funding was raised in 2015, with the first round in March funded by high net-worth individuals – people we knew – to get us to the prototype stage. We then did a round of fundraising through crowdfunding, which closed in October 2015. We also received an Innovate UK grant.

What do you think of crowdfunding as a fundraising method?

It’s fantastic – crowdfunding is completely changing the profile of British industry. Before, you had investors that all had a clear view of how to run your company. Most of these were different to how you would want to run it yourself, leading to a built-in conflict. With crowdfunding, my investors want me to run the company the way I want to – they’re backing me. That’s really important because it means people can deliver companies in the way that they feel is best, rather than in an alternative way.

Funding through other channels is becoming very tight in this country and people keep saying to me that it’s very difficult to get funding in the UK. Actually, if you work with the leading crowdfunding platforms, and you’re sensible and hardworking, it’s not easy but is perfectly possible. The exciting thing is that the UK is ahead of the world on crowdfunding as the regulations in the USA make it very difficult for US institutions, and the rest of Europe has not quite accepted crowdfunding as a fundraising method. The UK is in a great position where we have a unique opportunity to use this platform to move businesses like ours forward.

How does the ioLight work?

The first thing is using the fantastic potential of the iPad screen. Many digital microscopes have the screen built into them, and we think that’s crazy because that screen is out of date the minute you launch the product. Tabelts, on the other hand, keep evolving – next year’s iPad will be better than this year’s, and so will the microscopes picture as a result. There is a wireless link to the iPad that displays the image taken by the microscope on the screen. 

The second thing is the camera components. The camera in a phone is completely wrong for our purpose. Over the years manufacturers have made lenses to clip onto phones, but the problem is that the camera itself is designed to take pictures of things far away, and we want to take pictures of something very small and close-up. We realised we had to build a new camera. The ioLight camera is a conventional mobile phone sensor camera with some clever optics that turns the camera into a microscope, so the optic is quite different from a standard mobile phone optic. That projects an image onto the sensor, which is then fed into the electronics of the microscope, and pushed out over a WiFi link to the iPad. The feed is HD, 1080p resolution video, which is a huge amount of data to transfer wirelessly. In examples such as Chromecast or Apple TV, the stream is delayed by about two seconds so that the receiving unit can reassemble the video at that end. However, if you were focusing a microscope, a two second delay would be infuriating. As a result, one of the big technological challenges was to develop a zero delay, high throughput wireless data pipe, which is what is now used in the ioLight. 

We also wanted to remove any features of a conventional microscope that we felt were over-engineered, while keeping our favourite parts. For example, having top and bottom illumination and a stage as a professional microscope would, but removing the X Y stage, as we thought it unnecessary. The microscope is set up to give an excellent picture. It is not capable of producing the image quality of a lab microscope, but that’s not what we’re looking for. We are looking for is something very portable and economic for various field applications. 

Do you think that the use of the ioLight in schools could encourage children to pursue science?

Yes, we love showing the microscope to children. We’ve done a lot of exhibitions for children, including a big show at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, UK, and an open day at the Eden Project, UK. If you try to get children to look into a conventional microscope, they often find it boring and confusing – they’re just not interested. When we take the ioLight to exhibitions, children clamour over it. That’s what science needs. That’s what is going to change science – children getting excited about it. 

What sort of feedback have you received so far? 

We are getting our first customer feedback now, and it’s looking to be a very broad market. In a way, this is the challenge we have ahead of us over the next few years. Materials science is obviously a big area that we are interested in, particularly micro engineering, micro machining and microelectronics. We’ve had some surprising feedback also, mostly from veterinary science. Vets have been our largest group of customers, using the microscope to diagnose animal parasites on farms, which you can do there and then. This cuts down on the time it takes to diagnose an animal substantially.

There has been some very positive feedback, but the field is so wide that we’re trying to work out where the sweet spot is for our product. 

What are the plans moving forward?

We’re a small company, so we need to be carful with our resources. We are, however, going to expand to other platforms, such as iPhone and Android – it’s just a question of what order and when. That depends on our customers and what they ask for. People are asking for these expansions, and we are currently assessing new opportunities. Developing each platform is quite an expensive process because porting our zero latency software from one platform to another is not a simple task. Therefore, we need to make sure we have some business on the relevant platform before we expand to it.

Anton Paar expands range

Anton Paar has added two new rheometers to its range with a focus on easy handling. The MCR 72 and MCR 92 are billed as easy to use in an everyday lab routine, with the 72 equipped with a ball-bearing motor to be robust and require no compressed air. The 92 has an air-bearing motor for high accuracy with sensitive samples.

Both rheometers are recommended for observing the structure of a sample as well as its flow behaviour and deformation. Measurements can be taken in both rotational and oscillatory modes, and there are different kinds of temperature device available. 

Anton Paar claims that an automatic motor-driven elevation mechanism of the measuring head combined with the SafeGap feature makes measurements 100% reproducible. Both models also feature TruRay, able to regulate the lighting of the measuring surface.

Kleindiek micromanipulators used at Imperial College

Through the use of Kleindiek Nanotechnik (KN) micromanipulators, Dr Farid Tariq of Imperial College London, UK, aims to improve fuel cells and batteries by analysing 3D multiscale imaging and modelling of these devices to develop the ability to control how porous electrodes operate at fine levels. The research could help understand microstructures and property relationship together at a fine scale. 

Dr Tariq has said that the choice was made because of the flexibility of use and deployment given by the KN devices. KN produces a variety of instruments for various modes of microscopy. These are small and practical devices for easy and quick use. 

Thermofisher Scientific adds communication protocols to nuclear gauges 

Thermofisher Scientific has made its Thermo Scientific LevelPRO and DensityPRO nuclear gauges more accessible with the addition of communication protocols. These allow the gauges to integrate into a plant’s control systems to provide self-diagnostic and communication abilities such as archiving, trend analysis, process optimisation, predictive maintenance and asset management. 

Thermofisher Scientific says that, by expanding the communications offerings, aims to make it easier for customers to standardise across their full system regardless of the communication protocols they employ. 

CELLView improves microscopy performance 

Greiner Bio-One, UK, has collaborated with EMBL, Germany, to produce the CELLView slide, a cell culture slide for use in the biotechnology sector. The companies claim that the slide enhances efficiency, clarity and speed of microscopic applications and cell imaging. 

The slide features conical wells that reduce the impact of the meniscus effect and offer the ability to use multichannel pipettes. The embedded cover glass, single focal plane and maximal planarity produce close to no autofluorescence. 

Linkam launches new LINK software.

Temperature controlled microscopy company Linkam has released new system control and imaging process software in response to user input. The new LINK software is a user interface developed to deliver a practical system experience for temperature controlled microscopy stages. The interface allows the user to control and monitor the different parameters for Linkam stages, including temperature, humidity, shear mode, tensile force and vacuum. Up to 100 ramps can be programmed using the software, for more complex experiments. LINK features a five-point calibration system to increase accuracy and precision in data collection. 

LINK supports the Linkam T95 controllers via USB2 and RS232 connections.