Nerac President and CEO Kevin Bouley recently took Innovation Destination: Hartford on a tour of the company’s facilities, which are incubating several startups. IDH had the pleasure of being introduced to some local entrepreneurs, including Mark R. Smith, Principal of Macroscopic Solutions.
Smith, who is a geologist with a graduate degree in geoscience, created an innovative startup out of an idea and a hobby. “I never actually received any formal training in photomicrography, instead I taught myself,” he explained.
Smith used the technology in his undergraduate and graduate research projects and says he had great success with it. “I could answer my research questions with more clarity because I could show my observations more clearly,” he said.
This technology is now called the Macropod, which is the product Macroscopic Solutions has commercialized. “I knew that there was always a commercial potential because there were several people who never knew this technology existed,” Smith said.
It was the University of Connecticut’s Innovation Quest that motivated Smith to become an entrepreneur. He saw fliers for the 2013 Innovation Quest competition posted around the UConn campus. “I realized I had an idea that had high potential,” he says. Smith entered the competition and ended up winning first place, which provided some capital to fund the development of his idea and launch the product.
Smith says competing in the competition enabled him to meet people, introduce himself, discuss his idea, learn from situations and grow upon the feedback he received. “That was really helpful in terms of me winning the competition,” he noted, adding that he feels he was fortunate to have a good idea that was ready for the marketplace.
After the Innovation Quest competition, Smith was committed to building his high-resolution scientific imaging company, Macroscopic Solutions.
“When you win this type of competition, I don’t think you can accept the prize money and then tell anyone who believes so much in you that you’re not going to pursue your dream. I had an opportunity to be employed by someone else, and I turned it down to start my company.”
Macroscopic Solutions images anything that is about a micron and larger and creates a color image with extremely high resolution. The company provides imaging and 3-D imaging services as well as imaging courses. Smith says Macroscopic Solutions is currently working on making all of its images available for download from their website. The company also sells prints of its high-resolution images of specimens ranging from pollen to irises to insects.
Macroscopic Solutions’ signature product, the Macropod, enables people to perform very precise focus stacking. Focus Stacking, which is also known as focal plane merging and z-stacking, is a digital image processing technique that combines multiple images taken at different focus distances to create an image with a greater depth of field (DOF) than can be produced by any individual source image.
Macroscopic Solutions mission is to enhance research, inspire discovery and expose young minds to science. Getting kids interested in science is particularly important to Smith.
“When I started using this technology I was in high school myself and I couldn’t afford equipment of this kind,” he explained. “I wasn’t privileged enough to use it or even know about it. Luckily, I had the fortune of having a neighbor who is a scientist and exposed me to the idea.”
According to Smith, most scientists don’t even know what photomacrography is, nor do a lot of science teachers or students. “The first time I ever used the technology it was extremely eye opening, because even for me there were certain objects that I thought I knew and was familiar with. The second you put a sample on this camera, it shows you that exact sample in astounding detail like you’ve never seen before,” he said.
Smith’s experience was pivotal enough to inspire him to pursue science.
“If a lot of other kids had that experience they may do the same thing. All of us have this natural curiosity when we’re 10 years old or younger. But, as you grow up you forget about the curiosity you had as a child until it’s rekindled. I think this technology really has a strong capacity of doing so,” Smith said.
“We would like to give high school kids the ability to use a technology that, before Macroscopic Solutions, had always been out of reach. It could help kids become inspired by science. They’re going to discover science again, basically rediscover the curiosity they had as a kid,” Smith said.
“People in their 80s who view our images turn into young kids again when they see them. It’s pretty interesting,” he added.
Macroscopic Solutions is giving back to youth in the hopes that they will be inspired the same way Smith was. For every 10 Macropods Macroscopic Solutions sells, the company gives one away to a non-profit or high school.
Smith says the idea is that students will collect samples and their teacher will do all the imaging and then redistribute the images back to their students. The students can then file a report based on the specimens they have found. The class could then submit those images to Macroscopic Solutions where the samples would be curated and distributed to scientists.
“There’s a possibility that some of these kids might actually have their very own sample published in a scientific article, which would be a powerful point in their life,” Smith said.
Imaging incredibly small specimens is not always easy. Macroscopic Solutions recently worked on a project for Anson Ma, an engineer at the University of Connecticut, who wanted to use the technology to see how a small particles behave at certain interfaces.
Macroscopic Solutions had to image pollen grains floating on the surface of water. “Pollen grains are between 10 to 200 microns in diameter. We had the challenge of capturing 200 individual photographs of pollen grains floating on water without having them move at all, which is extremely difficult because we’re moving the sample relative to the camera,” Smith explained.
“That’s what sets our technology apart. To get that shot, we had to design a new part. We used a 3-D printer to create a design that stabilized the water. We set it on the stage, sprinkled some pollen grains, and it worked beautifully,” he said. “We really can image just about anything that’s really, really small and any size up from small. The Macropod is very versatile.”
BUILDING A CUSTOMER BASE
Initially, people found out about the Macropod through word of mouth. “We started attending scientific conferences. From there, word spread and we started selling to more and more people,” Smith said.
The Macropod is being used in powerful institutions, including Harvard University, Lehman College, the University of Nebraska, Boston College and the University of San Diego.
“The University of Pennsylvania has one of our Macropods, which Dr. Lauren Sallan is using to image fish fossils. Dr. Selena Smith at the University Michigan is using a Macropod to image and document seeds. The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and Geoscience departments at the University of Connecticut are using a Macropod to document all kinds of samples related to biology and geology,” Smith said.
But the Macropod’s uses are not just limited to the educational sector. For example, Macroscopic Solutions recently worked with Steven Hofer, who is a fancy-colored diamond expert.
“We were imaging diamonds, which are very difficult to shoot because diamonds retro reflect light. You have to shine light somehow directly from where the camera is coming,” Smith explained. “That was really the motivation for our diffusers. They disperse light extremely well, you get these really flat matte images with zero glare.”
Macroscopic Solutions is currently converting all of its image data into 3-D point clouds so they can be twisted and rotated in space. The 3-D images can be downloaded, printed on a 3-D printer and visualized with a reality headset.
“That’s a pretty recent advancement in technology, but it’s finally tapping into the potential that we’ve always foreseen,” Smith said.
Smith says being in Connecticut and connected to UConn’s resources helped shape his startup business in some ways.
“It pointed me in the right direction,” he said.
“Where Connecticut aided is that, because there’s such a culture of entrepreneurs who are doing the exact same thing, it’s encouraging to know that if you have a bad day, you can talk to other entrepreneurs and find out they maybe also had a bad day. In a way that’s sort of comforting. It helps you get through the next day, which may be completely rewarding,” Smith noted.
“Connecticut is a different state; it’s a state of forward thinkers,” he continued. “There are a lot of innovators here. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial drive, partly because there are a lot of entrepreneurs here. Because of that there are a lot of opportunities. Connecticut is pushing new business, which I think will stimulate the economy and make for a better tomorrow.”
ADVICE FOR ENTREPRENEURS FOR STARTUP BUSINESS OWNERS
Smith’s entrepreneurial success started with the same advice he gives to others.
“If you have the motivation and the personal drive to get it done, you can turn any idea into a profitable business,” he said.
“It’s not going to be all uphill from day one, it’s going to take about five years before you hit a point where you’re going to figure out if you made the right decision or not,” Smith continued.
“In most cases, if it’s something you really enjoy doing, you’re going to find out pretty quickly you probably made the right decision. But you need that drive, you need that self determination to start your own business—it’s crucial.”