The Foldscope, a portable and versatile microscope made mostly out of paper (water-proof), magnifies the wonders of the microscopic world, without the bulk and expense of a conventional research microscope. Foldscope is designed to bring microscopy out of science laboratories and into the hands of people around the world.
It was first made in 2014 by Manu Prakash, a professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University, and his then-student Jim Cybulski. Since then the Foldscope has travelled rapidly around the world, in the hands of scientists, medical workers, students and even people outside the scientific community.
Manu Prakash is an Indian born scientist who is a Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford university. He earned a BTech in computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and a PhD in applied physics from MIT.
The paper microscopes have been around for a couple years now, but this campaign aims to distribute them to a much larger number of people. In theory, anyone should be able to assemble a Foldscope in ten minutes—the template and materials are published online.
Each of these explorers, working thousands of kilometres apart, used not an ordinary microscope, but one made of folded paper, a micro-lens, and a cheap LED light source the size of a small button. The instrument is made of materials that cost less than a hundred rupees. It can fit into a trouser pocket. Yet, it works just like a conventional microscope that’s many times its size and weight, and roughly a thousand times its cost.
It now features focus-locking mechanisms and an ability to map a slide; it can diagnose diseases like leishmaniasis, which is endemic to many parts of Africa, and schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease that affects large numbers of people without access to clean water. At this moment, the Foldscope is undergoing perhaps the most challenging adaptation of its short life—the ability to detect malarial parasites. More than fifty thousand Foldscopes are in use today.
Prakash, who is 38 years old, was born in Mawana, a rural sugar-producing town in Uttar Pradesh. He runs the Prakash Lab at Stanford University, a playground for frenetic inventor prodigies across various disciplines, all engaged in “curiosity-driven science”. They often work, Prakash says, without a set agenda, “working on intuition…we don’t know whether something we are working on will ever be useful, but we think there is something there”.
Manu continues to work towards a future where the tools of an entire diagnostic chain—drawing a drop of blood, sealing it, running it through a centrifuge, putting it on a slide without fear of infections and observing it through a microscope—will cost less than a McDonald’s burger, and fit into a pocket.
The goal is to give millions of people access to the durable, portable, and affordable scientific device.So if you want to get your hands on a paper microscope, your best bet is to become a backer. And you’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping send microscopes to aspiring scientists all over the world.