By: Stefanie Dion Jones ’00 (CLAS)
he next time you swat away a pesky fly, picture this.
Thanks in part to UConn alum Mark Smith ’13 MS, ultra-high-resolution images like this one may very well guarantee you’ll never look at anything the same way again – whether it’s the jewel-toned flesh of your favorite fruit, the intricate scales of a butterfly’s wings, or the otherworldly surface detail of tattooed human skin.
As co-founder of high-tech startup Macroscopic Solutions, Smith is offering an entirely new view of the world through an imaging technology called the Macropod. The device, which is able to capture two- and three-dimensional images of items minuscule or massive in stunning detail and focus, also is extremely portable, having been designed for scientists who are conducting research and documenting specimens abroad or out in the field.
“This is something that gives you unlimited focus, true color as it occurs in nature, but at the same time a very flexible instrument that you can use for multiple imaging applications,” Smith says. And although there are other products available that utilize similar technology, he says, the Macropod not only applies novel innovations in optimizing lighting, but also is unmatched in its combination of versatility, ease of use, affordability, and portability.
“People don’t immediately recognize the potential of the system and what it’s really capable of accomplishing,” he says. “You can take this anywhere. … You can set it up outside and image the night sky and shooting stars, but we’ve advanced the optics so much that we can also image objects that are as small as one micron.”
From Budding Scientist to Business Owner
Although he once knew next to nothing about running a business, Smith – a scientist at heart who has long enjoyed photography as a pastime – acted upon a longstanding hunch that this kind of high-quality macrophotography technology held enormous potential for fellow researchers far and wide if it could be made easily transportable.
“Very few people I associated with had any idea that this was a technology that was available to them,” says Smith, who was busy completing a master’s degree in geosciences at UConn when he decided to enter the University’s Innovation Quest (iQ) competition, a program that invites aspiring student entrepreneurs to propose their ideas for commercial ventures. “I thought, ‘Why not try it?’ Let’s see how the idea takes in the world of business. … and I ended up winning it.”
Coming in first place, Smith received $15,000 in prize money, along with extensive support to help get the business off the ground. Since launching in 2013, the company has been selling the Macropod to university researchers and scientists around the world.
“I always had the idea that this could be a commercialized product, but never the idea that it could be a business – especially a business that I could operate,” says Smith. “Now I see that there’s a high potential in advancing science through this technology, so that sort of pushed me to go this direction.”
Sharing Scientific Discovery
From dragonflies to the human eye to a dollar bill, what can be imaged by the Macropod seems to have few limits. Even those specimens generally considered repellant – such as spiders or wasps – can offer the most unlikely glimpse of wonder or oddity.
“Everything’s cool and weird,” Smith says. “Like a centipede. That’s what’s interesting: there are a lot of items that I don’t even want to touch. I think they’re the most disgusting things in the world. But the second you image something like that, it’s so bizarre-looking, it’s not at all what you expect.”
It is that same sense of awe and discovery that Smith ultimately hopes to share with the next generation. In addition to making all images taken by Macropod users publicly available, the company donates one of the devices to a high school classroom or nonprofit for every 10 Macropods sold. Sharing dazzling images of even ordinary objects with students, Smith says, can be “really eye-opening for a lot of young people, and it could be the nudge they need to go into a STEM-related field.”
Beyond generating two- and three-dimensional images, the Macropod’s technology may also prove valuable on yet another promising front – 3-D printing. “The typical way to image a sample for 3-D printing is with two imaging devices – basically, two cameras – because you need two perspectives to generate a 3-D image,” Smith says. “With the Macropod, because of the way it generates images, you no longer need that, so it’s going to reduce cost in that industry because now you’ll only need one camera.”
Looking to the future, the company is working toward finding a way to integrate the technology of the Macropod with that of 3-D printers, so that the device could be used for 3-D scanning purposes, says Smith. The range of possibilities – from producing life-saving medical solutions to captivating students through a whole new level of hands-on learning – are vast.
For example, Smith says, “If somebody’s heart valve goes bad, with the Macropod, you could actually image a replica of the perfect healthy heart valve very, very fast – and in color. The computer can then print cells – tissue samples – of a heart valve, and that can actually be used in a patient and prolong their life. That, ultimately, is the future. … There are a lot of different ways that people can spin this – ways we haven’t even thought of yet.”
Story courtesy of UConn Magazine