Foldscope was invented by Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski.
The invention occurred while Jim was a PhD student in Manu's laboratory at Stanford University. The inspiration for the Foldscope came from visits to field stations where they continually encountered bulky, broken microscopes, or a lack of microscopes entirely. As traditional microscopes are often expensive or cumbersome, they realized the universal scale of this problem and the need for a low-cost, revolutionary solution.
Jim Cybulski (left) and Manu Prakash (right)
“What is the best microscope you can build for under $1 in parts?” This question motivated their work. In the early days of the project, ideas for the low-cost microscope were sketched down on paper. These sketches struck a chord. Although the sketching on paper was initially simply practical-- it also alluded to a critical revelation in the search for a low cost medium: paper! Paper is a brilliant and versatile material, as it is not only very inexpensive, but also gives rise to precision when it is folded into specific configurations.
The project blossomed into the invention of the Foldscope, the foldable microscope made mostly of paper, that to this day still achieves the goal of being less than one U.S. dollar in parts.
The revolutionary affordability of microscopy provided by the Foldscope inspired the pair to get their tool into as many hands as possible…
Early sketch of the Foldscope design.
Standford University. Attribution: King of Hearts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
The technology behind the Foldscope was first published in June 2014 in PLoS ONE. Read the publication to delve into the specifics of how Foldscope functions and the work that went into its development.
Foldscope’s pilot program began in 2014 with support from the Moore Foundation, Stanford University’s Spectrum Medtech and the Coulter Foundation. The pilot program alone distributed over 70,000 Foldscopes to 135+ countries. Much of this work was carried out by volunteers and at no cost to the recipient. In exchange for the Foldscopes, we only asked that recipients contribute their findings to our budding online community, the Microcosmos.
Once the global distribution of Foldscopes began to swell, an astonishing diversity of applications were (and continue to be) revealed. For example, Foldscopes were used to identify the microscopic eggs of agricultural pests in India, 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.
Pilot Program-era design of the Foldscope being assembled.
Current Design of the Foldscope
In December 2015, Foldscope Instruments, Inc. was founded.
The company was founded with the goal of scaling up production and eventually releasing other low-cost scientific tools. To date, over 1.7 million Foldscopes have been distributed. Supported now by the company's sales and our many incredible partners, we aim to distribute millions more.
In regard to our user base, we believe that the most important part of Foldscope is not the tools themselves, but the communities that use them. Especially now as we surpass one million users, our community spans many countries, ages, and levels of scientific background. Within the Microcosmos, Foldscope users connect, share their data & observations, ideas, and problems. It is a place to collaborate, find inspiration, and learn from fellow explorers. Through grassroots mentoring, we aim to create a network of curious members dedicated to exploration, open sharing, and equality of access of scientific tools around the world.
In 2022, Foldscope was awarded the Golden Goose Award, a prize organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to highlight ideas that start innocently but become breakthrough inventions.
Looking to the future, we believe that access to science, and science education, is a human right. We dream of a world where every child carries a microscope in their pocket.
We offer incredible thanks to our partners, who are engaging with us to support Foldscope's global distribution efforts.
Moore Foundation I India's Dept of Biotechnology I Simons Foundation I MilliporeSigma