Exo Labs Links iPads, Microscopes To Modernize Science Education
Exo Labs wants to turn the iPad—proliferating in schools like generations of Apple products before it—into a platform for science education, both in the classroom and in the field.
The Seattle-area hardware startup, which landed $640,000 from angel investors in December and a clutch of recognition through local startup competitions last fall, plans to begin shipping its first product, the Focus Microscope Camera, later this month. The aluminum-clad device, about the size of a deck of cards, fits onto the eyepiece of a microscope, outputting the image to an iPad or iPhone.
It moves microscopy from a solitary, hunched-over endeavor to a wide-angle, interactive, group activity. Instead of taking turns at the eyepiece, wondering whether you’re seeing the object of interest or a speck of dust on the slide, everyone can effectively use the microscope—or a range of other imaging devices—together simultaneously.
With the Exo app, you can make measurements on the image—how many microns is that cell’s diameter?—add annotations, manipulate it, and share it all in real-time.
Exo’s initial focus is on K-12 and university science classrooms, where its device could be the link between existing equipment and new technology.
The iPad is taking a growing share of the education market, possibly at the expense of the PC. But Exo co-founders Michael Baum, 41, and Jeff Stewart, 35, engineers who met at the Seattle medical implant maker NeuroVista, say the device is being under-used.
“These things are magic, and nobody is taking advantage of the power of these because getting data into them is hard,” Baum says. “But man, once you get data into it, it’s amazing.”
Exo has big aspirations beyond the initial device, melding the portability and power of the iPad and iPhone—and, perhaps eventually, other mobile devices—with scientific tools.
“We’re thinking about this as the dashboard of your science education experience, pulling in other devices and other sensors so you could time-stamp and serialize them all,” Stewart says.
Imagine taking temperature and ph samples while examining aquatic micro invertebrates in a stream, and tagging the observations with the exact time and location via your phone’s GPS. That’s what gets Stewart and Baum really excited, although there are a lot of pieces still to fall in place—including a portable all-in-one microscope Exo aims to release within a year, which Baum describes as a “take-your-kid-to-the-beach product.”
The Focus Microscope Camera uses a wired connection rather than wifi or Bluetooth because occupying the former would block the device’s connection to the Internet and the latter does not provide sufficient fidelity for examining images through a microscope.
“We intentionally chose to connect with a cable initially,” Baum says. “If we were doing this wirelessly, then the resolution would be way lower, and the speed at which we could interact with these images would be way slower.”
Exo is keeping the details of the connection to iOS devices’ 30-pin dock connector (and Lightning connector on the latest versions)—including data transfer rates—under wraps, because of confidentiality agreements with Apple and to protect what Exo sees as a competitive advantage.
“There’s no other devices that are moving this much data to and from iPads and iPhones, and allow you to interact with what you’re seeing in the way that we do,” Baum says.
Stewart, a firmware engineer, notes that the connection is “bandwidth limited,” and not “an off-the-shelf interface.”
“You have to be able to be very judicious about the data you’re passing across the interface,” he says.
Pressed to elaborate on the technology, Stewart says he used just about everything he’s worked on previously in his career, including Embedded C, micro-controller design, and general lower-level driver-type software. “Your readers are welcome to buy one and take it apart,” Stewart quips.
Partnering with Apple-approved manufacturers located “within a day’s drive” of Seattle, Exo plans an initial production run of several hundred devices.
“We have the capacity to manufacture thousands more devices during the rest of the year, and we have chosen manufacturing partners who have the capacity to scale production volumes quickly beyond that,” says Baum, whose expertise is in mechanical engineering and manufacturing.
The Focus Microscope Camera will sell for $599, with a 25 percent discount offered to K-12 education customers.
Exo hopes to tap other markets as well, such as healthcare, environmental sciences, dentistry—pretty much any field in which microscopy is used. The device can also be outfitted with a zoom lens, mounted on a stand and used during a dissection, to examine geological samples, or for quality control in engineering and manufacturing processes. Stewart says he uses it while soldering prototype devices.
Exo sees itself participating in a “hardware renaissance,” as described by Y Combinator’s Paul Graham.
Being a hardware company could help Exo stand out in the eyes of investors from a crowded field of software and app developers, but there are also significant cash-flow challenges because of the long lead time between committing to tooling and materials, and selling the first product.
Exo plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign, which the founders hope will provide a final push as the product hits the market, and a sense of demand to help size initial production runs.
For now, Exo is operating on its small seed financing, but the five-person startup plans to open a Series A round in February, Baum says.
The company’s strong showing in local startup competitions has also yielded cash and in-kind contributions. It won the Northwest Entrepreneur Network First Look Forum, the Seattle Angel Conference investment competition, and was the people’s choice at the MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest Startup Demo. (Full disclosure: I was a judge at the MIT event and cast my vote for Exo.)