What is “frugal science?” A visit to the home of the $1 folding paper microscope

Two students talking in a lab full of devices.
Students are imagining—and then building—global health solutions at the visionary edge of possibility in Dr. Manu Prakash’s Stanford University bioengineering lab. Photo: PATH/Tom Furtwangler.

What innovations or economic opportunities would be unleashed if powerful microscopes only cost $1 each, and fit in a pocket?

What health improvements could result from bringing point-of-care diagnostics to the most remote outposts, in a simple wind-up device that does not need electricity or external chemical reagents?

Imagining—and then building—global health solutions at the visionary edge of possibility are part of the mission of Dr. Manu Prakash’s Stanford University bioengineering lab.

Their “frugal science” philosophy has already led to the development of the $1 folding paper microscope popularized by this TED talk, which has caught the imagination of more than 1.2 million viewers.

Two men look at a hand-sized microscope made from folded paper in a lab.

PATH’s president and CEO Steve Davis and Dr. Manu Prakash discuss the $1 folding paper microscope developed in Prakash Lab at Stanford. Photo: PATH/Tom Furtwangler.

What does “frugal science” mean?

“Your lab thinks about many of the same problems we focus on at PATH, and in very similar ways,” said Steve Davis, PATH’s president and CEO, meeting with Manu and his students recently on campus at Stanford, where Steve is a visiting faculty member this quarter.

The students, a diverse group whose disciplines range from physics to mechanical engineering to music, and who represent countries from around the globe, work in a lab where frugal science is one of several areas of focus. Pressed by Steve to define the term, members of the group described how the frugal science concept frames their solutions-oriented work.

“Innovators in low-resource settings are really good at this,” said Elizabeth Marshman, a graduate student in the lab. “So it’s bringing that spirit of creativity to an environment like Stanford where there are so many people who are creative and capable and primed to innovate.”

Indian man and girl sit behind the wheel of a rickety truck.

This jugaad truck, like many in India, was built with a diesel engine originally intended to power an agricultural irrigation pump. Photo: Wikipedia.

“But it does not mean that you compromise, in terms of the solution,” added Manu.

“There is a word that gets tossed around, ‘jugaad,’which happens to have Indian origins, and there are people in the management world who use jugaad as an analogy for problem-solving in business. By jugaad they really mean a hack, a quick way of getting to a one-time solution, but then you leave it there, and it’s often not sustainable or scalable or optimal in any way. Frugal science is not that.”

“Sometimes people are confused about this,” added graduate student Deepak Krishnamurthy, chiming in with enthusiasm. “But it’s about using cost as a parameter; it does not mean that you are going for a solution that is anything less than the optimal.”

Poster showing magnified images, with hand gesturing towards it.

Manu shows a poster describing how the pocket-sized microscope offers magnification over 2000X, at a cost under $1 per unit. Photo: PATH/Tom Furtwangler.

The impact of 10,000 free microscopes

While other lab innovations are moving from concept to prototype, the “Foldscope” origami microscope remains the lab’s most famous creation. For under $1, the microscope provides 2000X magnification, in a form that fits in a pocket or can be sent in the mail.

Recently the lab began distributing more than 10,000 of the devices for free, after collecting applications from more than 130 countries worldwide. “The only thing we asked in return is that they use a simple online form to submit how the microscope is being used,” said Manu.

As the submissions come in, user feedback shows the diverse and unexpected ways the Foldscope is being used, which was the whole point of sending out so many free kits.

A scrap metal recycler who earns a few dollars a day wrote that he can now tell more accurately which metal he is handling and whether he is getting a fair price for it. A beekeeper uses the Foldscope to diagnose parasites that are attacking her bees; healthier hives have the potential to increase her family’s financial security.

Three men hold and look at a small device in their hands.

Steve, Manu, and Kenyan graduate student George Korir discuss one of the lab’s innovative devices: a simple wind-up mechanism from a toy, reconfigured to run disease diagnostics using a paper strip carrying punch-card programming and embedded chemical reagents. Photo: PATH/Tom Furtwangler.

Bridging from the lab to the field

The lab’s intersection of cross-disciplinary experts who come together to solve complex problems mirrors the approach PATH often takes, a similarity noted by Steve in the discussion.

Promising to connect the lab’s students and projects with several PATH groups, he wrapped up the conversation with an encouragement to keep “moving development thinking to the left” as much as possible, explaining that he meant “taking considerations that often come much later in the product development process, like user testing, and manufacturing costs, and regulatory hurdles, and moving them to the left, meaning earlier, in the development cycle.”

“Your group’s emphasis on ‘frugal science’—a term that I love—is remarkable in its emphasis on integrating these cost and manufacturing considerations into your design thinking from the beginning,” said Steve.