Bright thinking in microscopy

ioLight co-founder Andrew Monk discusses his firm's innovative, mobile microscopy products 

How was the idea of ioLight and its portable microscope conceived?

In a pub of course! Founders Richard Williams and Andrew Monk met for lunch in spring of 2013. Richard had been doing some consultancy work and thought it was strange that he could not buy an inexpensive high-quality microscope to carry with him. A few days later he worked out why portable high-resolution microscopes are difficult to build and sent Andrew an image of a cheek cell to a bus in Brixton. That was a hard thing to do before the ioLight microscope! A year later the patent was filed and the company was set up. The product was launched in summer of 2016.

There are other portable microscopes out there, what makes ioLight different?

Actually, there are not that many truly portable microscopes. There are small USB microscopes, but most of them need a USB cable connecting them to a computer and a lightbox to give proper transmitted illumination. The microscope has to be held very still to get a high-resolution image, that requires taking a retort stand too. So that means taking a large carrying case!

The field microscope we really admire is the McArthur microscope, which has been around since the 1940s, but is hard to find now. This is an inverted microscope that you hold up to your face with the sample balanced on a small stage - not great if you are looking at a faecal sample!

The unique features of the ioLight microscope are that it is digital and gives beautiful 1 micron resolution images from a pocket-sized device. All you need is the microscope and your smartphone. The illuminators, stand, battery and wireless connections are all built-in. This may not seem important, but one of our customers recently took the microscope up to 5,300m on Mount Everest and it is difficult to carry a large case up there!

Tell us about the applications that use ioLight

Our biggest application is in agriculture. The portable microscope allows vets and agronomists to diagnose disease in livestock, fish, crops and soil on the farm. Fast diagnosis means that the problem can be treated immediately rather than waiting a week for results from the lab and only one visit is necessary. Immediate treatment increases productivity, especially in fish farms where parasites can spread rapidly. Productivity is really important as the world population grows so quickly and the demand to grow more food from less land increases.

You have recently added a new microscope to your portfolio – the inverted microscope – why?

Our ‘Magnificent Mobile Microscopes’ are mainly used in the field or classroom. However, there are also applications for compact microscopes in the laboratory. Many experiments are run in small spaces with tightly controlled conditions, such as incubators. To observe these experiments, scientists need to open them and remove the experiment to place it on a microscope and this changes the experimental conditions. The ioLight inverted microscope is so compact that it can fit inside many experiments and they can be monitored wirelessly from the outside, so you never have to open the door. Inverted microscopes can also be expensive and complicated, the ioLight microscope is very simple and delivers high-resolution images directly to a laptop, iPad or even a phone.

What is the USP of the ioLight inverted microscope?

It is really compact, simple to use and great value for money.

How does it differ from the standard lab inverted microscope?

Standard lab inverted microscopes are quality optical instruments. High-quality microscope objectives are large, heavy and expensive. The ioLight inverted microscope uses mobile phone technology to generate a simple digital image in a choice of file formats. This technology is less expensive and smaller, but the optics are also extremely high quality because they are made in very high volumes. The size, cost and simplicity of the ioLight inverted microscope mean that it can be left in an experiment and it does not have to be shared between multiple users. Therefore, the experiment can be monitored continuously without disturbing experimental conditions.

What are the application for the inverted microscope?

Laboratory experiments such as cell culture and other petri dish experiments.

Is it being used for any particular research or trials at the moment?

The big growth area we see is algae research. Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) are a real menace, poisoning lakes and other bodies of water. Our portable field microscopes are the perfect tool for monitoring lakes, but back in the lab, the inverted microscope allows scientists to culture different species of algae for further testing. Several universities are using the inverted microscope to study algae in the lab.

What’s next for ioLight?

Every week new users are trying the ioLight microscope and realising that simple, compact, digital microscopes do not always deliver poor pictures. Have a look at some of the images on our website.

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