Argolight goes to space!

How a small company equip the International Space Station microscope?
Story created with Gautier Papon, Argolight’s CEO
Published on the 10 February 2017

Two years ago, our small company was contacted by a NASA contractor to supply our product to equip the International Space Station microscope. Now they are getting ready to ship our technology to space in the upcoming SpaceX Spx CRS 11 – Falcon 9 launch. A great achievement for a then 4 people, now 8 people French company. Here is the story of how it came to happen.

Argolight is a small French company, founded in 2012 by Dr. Arnaud Royon and I, just after I finished my Ph.D. We are based in Pessac, in the south west of France, it is a small city where landscape is the result of historic vineyards and the urban sprawl of the nearby Bordeaux.

We are a spin-off the Bordeaux University: we turned a technology issued from research into a viable product. Like most cutting-edge technology, ours is the result of the cumulative efforts of several research teams over dozen of years (from Bordeaux University and the CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research). We have been the final link in the chain that transferred the knowledge into a product.

NASA contractor:

Can you help us improve the accuracy of the microscope on the ISS?

Gautier Papon:

In the spring of 2014, we were contacted by Christian, with a email summing up to “Can you help us improve the accuracy of the microscope on the ISS ?”. Christian is the lead optical engineer for an historic NASA contractor based out of Cleveland, Ohio, in the NASA’s Glenn Research Center (GRC) . The ISS is equipped with several microscopes for different applications. Most of them study the growth of organisms in low gravity.

The microscope Christian was talking about is the NASA LMM (Light Microscopy Module, here on the left). It’s a heavily customized system based on a LEICA RXA microscope. The system comes in a huge rackable box with exposed wiring, brass and metal parts. It currently features high-resolution black and white microscopy, bright field, epifluorescence (EPI) and fluorescent techniques. Christian contacted us about those fluorescence features.

Fluorescence microscopes have been a standard tool in biology and cell imaging for more than fifty years. In a fluorescence microscope, we inject fluorescent dyes to the sample. Those dyes are designed to attach to specific parts of the specimen (cell membrane, core, DNA segment, etc…): Using fluorescent dyes of different colors for different parts of the specimen results in an image mapping the morphology of the studied specimen.

The issue is that those dyes are degraded by the light shined on it, resulting in an effect called “fluorescence photobleaching”. That’s why it’s not a simple task to control the quality of imaging of a system. One cannot obtain stable samples to compare between systems nor compare a single system at different time. It means data from different systems cannot be treated as one coherent database preventing innovative approaches such as “big-data” exploration. This difficulty strongly impacts the “omics” sciences (genomics, proteomics or metabolomics..) that rely on large set of data. In the case of the ISS, an additional constraint is the reduction of gravity that makes moveable parts such as translation stages more prone to shift.

At Argolight, we provide stable tools for the quality control of fluorescence-based systems (such as microscopes, slide scanners, etc.) in life sciences. We perfectioned a process that allows us to induce 2D and 3D stable fluorescent patterns in a glassy material. The precision of the patterning enables to check all spatial aspects of a system, including depth as we provide 3D patterns.

Our patterns exhibit rechargeable fluorescence but no photobleaching. It means that you may decrease the intensity of the pattern when imaging it, but as soon as you switch off the illumination, the fluorescence starts to “recharge”, eventually coming back to its original intensity. This unique behavior allows us to offer a tool to compare, monitor and diagnose over several years the imaging quality of fluorescence based systems.

When we received the email from Christian, our company was 18-month-old, with only four people working in a small room at the University of Bordeaux. We already had some success selling our product to big pharma companies such as Sanofi or Roche, but we were still rapid iterating our product. Our strategy at the time was to produce very small batches of products, no more than 10 at once, try to sell them, get the most feedback as possible from the user and modify the product accordingly. This would led us to produce 6 generations of product in less than 24 months.

"We took the opportunity and crossed our fingers"

This type of iterative development is not rare in the software industry. But for an industrial start-up as Argolight it is much rarer, as it bears consequences in term of equipment, production processes, lead time and therefore, accessible sales results. Rapid iteration has the advantage of reducing the time between investment and sales (the dreaded “Death Valley”) but the resulting earnings are limited due to the short amount of goods to sell. We had the chance to clarify this aspect to our investors early on, something that I would strongly advise to any CEO. So when the Nasa contractor contacted us, we were clearly not manufacturing products to Space standards, but this strategy choice, in a strike of luck, has made us very flexible and able to adapt quickly our process. We took the opportunity and crossed our fingers.

I will not describe the process and back-and-forth between us and our client, but to give an idea to any newcomer to this field, I will only say that we finally delivered the product in 2016, for a flight scheduled in May 2017…2 years after the initial contact. This time has allowed us to design a high-quality product that we are confident and proud to send to Space.

In the meantime, Argolight has grown from 4 people to 8, we’ve moved out of the small crowded room at the University to an actual building with our name on the office door. Today, we slowed the iteration process as we reached product maturity. Four years of listening to our clients made us understand that quality control is as much a technology issue as it is a process issue. This prompted us to develop our own software to help and streamline the client experience. Quality control is not rocket science anymore.

We are aware that Space microscopy is not a growing market and that this product may be the only one to be used in low gravity. But as a team of mostly reformed science geeks, the day of the launch, you can be sure that we will be watching it live, telling ourselves “Can you believe it, there is something of us in Space”.

Header photo from SpaceX Flickr Account (see here)
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