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Stanford inventor designs low-cost science tools for the world

Photo of children in a Ugandan classroom holding up paper Foldscope microscopes.

Photo by Manu Prakash.

Stanford Medicine Scope - June 12th, 2017 - by Kris Newby

Henry Ford, the father of the first affordable automobile, once said, “I will build a motor car for the great multitude… constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise… so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one…”

More than a century later, bioengineering professor Manu Prakash, PhD, is applying Ford’s same cost-cutting rigor to the design of scientific instruments. The results are jaw-dropping. To date, his lab has invented a $1 microscope made of folded paper, a 20-cent blood centrifuge and a $5 programmable chemistry set made from a toy hand-crank music box.

In an article in the spring issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, Prakash discusses his dreams for what he calls the “frugal science movement.” The article also describes his wildly inventive past, his plan to ship 1 million microscopes around the world by year’s end, and his most audacious frugal design challenge yet — to build a high-powered scanning electron microscope out of only $100 in parts.

Beyond improving global health, Prakash hopes that his frugal science tools will encourage more hands-on science education and ignite the curiosity of our next generation of scientists and engineers.

To accelerate the educational effort, his lab and a spinoff company, Foldscope Instruments, is partnering with a variety of industry, nonprofit and educational groups to provide students in 47 cities worldwide with Foldscopes and science mentoring. One of these initiatives includes a program with the Indian government to couple micro-research grants with free Foldscopes.

“This was a special moment for me, since I deeply understand what a program like this might have meant for me as a kid growing up in a small town in India,” Prakash told me.

Originally published at Stanford Medicine Scope Blog