Foldscope was co-invented by Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski while Jim was a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering in Manu's laboratory at Stanford University. Their inspiration for the Foldscope came from field visits around the world where they continually encountered bulky, broken microscopes, or a lack of microscopes entirely.
Originally inspired by the idea of a cheap field diagnostics, and with support from a Gates Foundation Exploration Grant, the project blossomed into the invention of the Foldscope, a foldable microscope made mostly of paper, with a cost of goods (B.O.M) less than one U.S. dollar.
While further development, deployment for health-care applications of the Foldscope continue in academic labs around the world, the revolutionary affordability of microscopy provided by the Foldscope inspired the pair to get their tool into as many hands as possible. The technology behind the invention was first published in June 2014 in PLoS ONE.
The Pilot Program
The Foldscope pilot program at PrakashLab began in 2014 with support from the Moore Foundation. The project distributed 50,000 Foldscopes to 135 countries, and asked recipients to contribute findings to an online community. The global distribution of Foldscopes revealed an astonishing diversity of applications for such a tool. For example, Foldscopes were used to identify the microscopic eggs of agricultural pests in India and to catalog the biodiversity of soil arthropods in the Amazon, detect fake currency and medicine, follow toxic blooms, detect bacteria in water samples, map pollen diversity in a city landscape, among thousands of other things.
Foldscope instruments and the future
In December 2015, Jim and Manu founded Foldscope Instruments with the goals of scaling up production of the Foldscope and eventually releasing other low-cost scientific tools. Based on user feedback, we are further adding more features to Foldscope to make it even more powerful. Our next goal (phase 2) is to distribute one million Foldscopes by the end of 2017. As part of this expansion, Foldscope Instruments is partnering with educational organizations around the world.
The vision for Foldscope Instruments includes more than widely distributed and accessible scientific tools. We aim, through an online social platform and grassroots mentoring in local communities, to create a network of curious members dedicated to exploration, open sharing, and equality of access of scientific tools around the world.
In the end, we believe that every kid in the world should carry a microscope in his/her pocket…just like a pencil.