Prometheus Science has a crystal clear goal in mind: To spread the availability of science and education by creating affordable scientific-grade equipment.
These tools will empower people to interact with their environments around them, as well as enable them to find unique solutions tailored to their own problems. See their 'pitch' here.
To start, together with the NGO 'Trend in Africa' they have created the FlyPi, a 3D printed biology lab capable of scientific grade techniques. Methods such as high resolution microscopy, optogenetics, and fluorescence imaging. The FlyPi costs a mere fraction of comparable equipment and the whole thing doesn’t look too bad either.
The FlyPi (left) can give you images like this (right).
So… who are these guys?
Hey, thanks for doing this interview with the Neuromag. To get started with a question that shouldn’t be too hard: Who are you?
Thank you for having us, we also appreciate all the work that goes into Neuromag. Well, we’re three scientists based in Tübingen, Germany. There is André Maia Chagas, who co-developed one of our main products, the FlyPi. He is very connected in the open source community, which you may know from a prior article on Open Science in the NeuroMag. André is also our go to technical guy. There is also Valerio Raco, who received his PhD specializing in electromagnetic signals and techniques. He’s taking on the financial duties and made our logo. Then there is Eric McDermott, who completed his MSc on vision restoration and optogenetics last year (and also wrote an article about it). He brings some additional experience within the education sector and he’ll be handling many of the communication aspects we have to navigate as a startup, like “pitching” the idea. While we do have different strengths, at this point, we are also in essence Swiss-army knives. Everyone is constantly improving themselves and developing new competencies in the many fields needed to run a company.
Sounds like you have a solid team. So, how did this all start? Where did the idea to form a company together come from?
Well, I think we all were looking for something out on the horizon and a Tübingen-based startup accelerator program for Medical Technology popped out. We sat together and discussed potential ideas and the FlyPi as our flagship product became our golden egg, so to say, for our launch into the business world. The FlyPi gained some traction because it won CUTEC, an award from Cambridge focusing on innovative 3D printed designs and was also a semi-finalist for the Hackaday prize in the citizen science category. After taking this and running with it, we’re feeling really good with what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last 6 months. For example, we’ve just won “best pitch” for Prometheus Science at the 2017 Tübingen MedTech Demo Day. We’re taking this momentum and going forward. A lot of people are expressing interest in our vision, our product, and have responded well to our team.
Alright, I’ve got to ask… What is your vision, and what exactly is the FlyPi?
Our vision is simple. We want to provide affordable scientific equipment to the world, open for use for everyone, everywhere. We think that science plays a big role in the well-being of a region, and we also see that access to scientific equipment is not even across the board.
To give some quick numbers, Germany has approximately 82 million people and a scientific budget of about 100 billion euros. While somewhere like Nigeria, which is also considered a powerhouse of science on its respective continent, has 186 million people, but only a scientific budget of 490 million euros. That’s a huge difference. While initial resources are certainly a problem, the problem gets magnified when these budgets actually have to be used to purchase equipment. We think the classical production model results in equipment with high-price tags. So, we’re focusing on a lean and open-source production model, allowing us to come in and level the playing field by making equipment more affordable.
Our first attempt at doing this is with the FlyPi, which is essentially an all-in-one biology lab. We think it is pretty great. The structure at the moment is completely 3D printed while the hardware is based on the Raspberry Pi and Arduino units. We’ve also programmed a graphical user interface to ease the use of the modules, which range from high resolution microscopy to optogenetics to fluorescence imaging to thermogenetics to behavioral tracking. The best part is that it is all open-source, modifiable, and was validated experimentally against the high-price-tagged competitors’ instruments. A more detailed description can be found in the recently published paper in PLOS Biology.
Great, I like where you’re going with this. I understand that you are not only interested in making money, but also helping the community. Is providing affordable equipment what you mean by this?
Well, leveling the playing field by providing affordable equipment is certainly one aspect. With that being said, we definitely plan to do much more than that. For example, we are actively involved with one NGO called Trend In Africa. We’ve given workshops in various countries in Africa to teach people how to build and use the FlyPi. Not only that, but also how they can use the available open-source technology out there to build their own scientific equipment. From these workshops, we’ve seen firsthand how access to a powerful new tool can transform a community and give birth to a new wave of excited scientists.
Ideally, our collaborations wouldn’t stop with one region nor with one NGO. This idea of putting powerful scientific tools into people’s hands has a lot of potential to improve the way science is done.
Last but not least, we are planning to set up some pay structures that involve something to the effect of “for every X FlyPis purchased, we will donate one to a charity organization”.
Now, we also aren’t focusing all of our energies into developing regions specifically, there is also a lot of community building that happens irrespective of location. As a result of our open-source designs, we plan to have our community work with us to better our products and fine-tune them to particular problems. Our website serves as somewhat of a hub where people can communicate, share ideas, new designs, and find solutions together. We’ve received great feedback from our local communities and we have people waiting to buy the first version of the FlyPi from 19 different countries.
That’s really great guys, I wish you the best in making this all happen. You mentioned a website, is this up and running? Could I purchase a FlyPi on it?
As for the FlyPi, we are currently performing our iterations of alpha and beta testing to further improve our product before an official consumer launch. We want to refine the design and understand exactly how we can improve things for our users. Of course, we have incentives for people to sign up and become early adopters and we would certainly love for some people from Tübingen to form the foundation of our community.
Michael Palillo is currently a doctoral student at the Interfakultäres Institut für Biochemie (IFIB) in the lab of Prof. Dr. Robert Feil.