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How To Mass Produce A $1 Origami Paper Microscope

In 2014, Stanford professor Manu Prakash designed a paper microscope and sent it to 50,000 people. This year, he hopes to reach a million.

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In its two years of existence, the Foldscope—a super-cheap, origami paper microscope that can fit in your pocket—has made its way around the world, landing in some unusual markets. In the Peruvian Amazon, entomologist Aaron Pomerantz used the microscope in his fieldwork studying plant cells and insect larvae, without having to worry about the effects of mud splatters or rain on the instrument. In Tanzania, school kids used Foldscope to explore local water quality as a part of Project SHINE, a sanitation literacy project through the University of Calgary. It has also been used in India, Argentina, Mexico, and all over the United States, by everyone from groups wanting to detect fake drugs to kids examining the microbial quality of camel milk.

The diversity and breadth of Foldscope's initial users wasn't by accident: when Stanford University engineer Manu Prakash and his research students manufactured the first version of the microscope in 2014, they sent 50,000 of them to people in 135 countries to beta test. Now, Prakash and Jim Cybulski, a former PhD student in his lab, have expanded the Foldscope business outside of Stanford in hopes of getting the $1 paper microscope in the hands of a million more people over the course of 2017. Based on the usage and feedback of their wide pool of first users, they're offering updated and expanded kits via a Kickstarter campaign, which launched last week and has already tripled its goal.

Prakash says that the central idea behind the Foldscope has always been to make scientific tools as accessible to as many people as possible. "In some countries, people don’t believe in germ theory," he says. "Even in this country, there are people who don't believe evolution. But when you have tool that allows you to give a demonstration right in front of your eyes, it changes your perception because it's all about facts. The goal was to see: if we give tools to enable these passionate people, will they be able to transcribe that into progress?"

Making microscopes accessible relies on the ability to mass produce them affordably, which Prakash and Cybulski have done through a mix of clever physics, mathematics, and design. The body of the microscope is made from paper that has been die cut to be easily folded into a pocket-sized microscope in five or six minutes. Foldscope's tiny micro lens has a high curvature, which means that the light that passes through it bends sharply, leading to a high magnification. The team built its own manufacturing facilities so it can use the techniques that yield the most instruments at the lowest cost. For example, even as die cutting has gotten more and more complex, Foldscope has kept its design simple enough that the manufacturers are able to standardize the die-cut machines and keep costs down. They also embed magnets in the product so that it will fold easily but can still be made out of cheap paper.

The new version of the Foldscope will have a higher magnification than the first version released two years ago and a few enhanced features, such as a field of view locking mechanism that will let the user show a sample to someone else without losing the focus. It also has pseudo-phase contrast and dark-field illumination—essentially, filters that will give contrast or illumination to samples so that they are easier to see. All of these upgrades came from user feedback, much of which was documented on a community platform called Microcosmos.

The real revelation from the first round of Foldscopes, says Prakash, was the various ways they were used, and the diversity of communities that used them. In addition to Foldscope's central mission to bring scientific tools to those who otherwise wouldn't have access to them, deploying the instrument around the world also provided opportunities for study in a variety of locations with different plants, animals, and bacteria. For the current Kickstarter campaign, Foldscope hopes to expand the usage even further by allowing people to donate kits to individuals, groups or schools or nominate a potential recipient. The Foldscopes also come in expanded kits, with tools for everything from collecting to imaging on the field, and come in individual kits or classroom sized kits.

When it comes to designing new tools, Prakash says, understanding science allows for greater innovation. Without a knowledge of mathematics and physics he and his team wouldn't be able to develop a microscope that can be produced for less than $1. "I’m a physicist by training, but I design and build things I feel are missing in this world," he says. "To me, the process of design is not just conceptualizing or developing a user tool you want to hold in your hand, but exploring how you can exploit nature to experience the things that you care about. Designers need to be trained in physical sciences to work in their field, and scientists need to think of themselves as designers."

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