Need for a better microscope prompts launch of a startup

By WIll Ferguson, College of Arts & Sciences

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University physicist Matthew McCluskey wasn’t trying to invent the next generation of material characterization microscopes, but when he couldn’t get the results he wanted from the best on the market, he improvised.

Four years later, McCluskey launched Klar Scientific, a startup designing and manufacturing an innovative, new instrument that collects more information about materials in less time and at a lower cost than what is currently on the market. The company is the recipient of a $210,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant to bring the affordable and easy to use microscope to market.

“Our new instrument could make a major impact in the $6.2 billion microscope market,” McCluskey said. “The business development advice and funding we received from the WSU Commercialization Gap Fund and the WSU Innovation Corps program were instrumental in our efforts to build a prototype and demonstrate the potential of this new technology.”

Improvisation leads to discovery

For McCluskey, the journey to starting his own company began in 2012 while he was working in his laboratory in Webster hall. He was studying miniscule defects on the surface of a sample with a confocal microscope, an instrument scientists use to investigate a variety of organic and inorganic materials.

He was having a hard time gathering enough data with the tool so he decided to replace it with a custom-built microscope that used an off-the-shelf digital CCD camera instead of the more expensive light detector and optics used in conventional confocal microscopes.

His invention quickly proved to be a much more efficient way to gather data. Not only did it provide high resolution images of the nooks and crannies on the material’s surface but it also cost less than a conventional confocal microscope.

A new kind of confocal microscope being developed by WSU faculty collects more information about materials in less time and at a lower cost than what is currently on the market.

“Our microscope captured more data and had the added benefit of functioning like an autofocus,” McCluskey said. “By maintaining focus as we scan over the surface of our material, we aim to capture detailed images of surface defects with a vertical precision of 10 nanometers.”

University researchers and other scientists working in laboratories for companies like Samsung and General Electric use confocal microscopes to make sure there are no material inconsistences or defects in electronic, optoelectronic, and structural devices, as well as coatings, tubing, devices, disks, and specialty mirrors. McCluskey realized he had developed something novel that might be of use to them, so he contacted the WSU Office of Commercialization for help.

The next step

The Office of Commercialization collected market data to see if there was anything like McCluskey’s invention out there and helped him file a patent. McCluskey then contacted Brian Kraft, director of business development for the College of Arts and Sciences, who worked with several of his graduate student fellows in the Scholarly Knowledge, Innovation and Leadership Development (SKILD) program to help support McCluskey’s efforts to attract funding for development of the microscope.

“The Office of Commercialization and my team realized what Matt had come up with was different than what other microscope companies were doing so we worked with him to get a patent filed and explore funding options,” Kraft said. “If you are like Matt and think your research might have market potential, you want to be talking to a business development specialist from your college or someone from the Office of Commercialization right away. We will help you find out if there is any demand for your innovation, what the competition is like and provide advice on how to move your product into the real world.”

McCluskey then applied for and received funding from the WSU Commercialization Gap fund to develop several working models of the new microscope and teamed up with Rick Lytel, an adjunct physics professor and startup specialist based in Silicon Valley, to form Klar Scientific. The two researchers participated in WSU’s 8-week Innovation Corps program where they received financial support to meet with industry experts and potential customers to get feedback on their product.

“Reaching out to potential customers to see what their needs are is a critical step in the commercialization process and one that most university researchers don’t know how to take,” Lytel said. “Matt is an exception in that he knows how to talk with customers. This was critical to us.”

Earlier this year, Klar Scientific was awarded the National Science Foundation grant to incorporate what McCluskey and Lytel found from their consultations with corporate and university scientists into a new and improved product.

Going to market

McCluskey and Lytel recently recruited a former PhD student to help them integrate their microscope’s topographic mapping capability with a diverse set of spectroscopic tools that normally require additional and expensive instrumentation. The team has set up shop at the WSU Research and Technology Park in Pullman to finish up their development work over the spring. A study describing their new microscope is published in the online journal PLOS ONE.

“Because of its compact size and the low cost components we are using, our microscope could not only be used for research and quality control in academia and the private sector but also in schools at all levels,” Lytel said “It will cost relatively little compared to its conventional counterparts and could provide students with experience in measuring properties of complex objects and help prepare them for careers in various research, development, and production settings.”


News media contact:
Matthew McCluskey, Department of Physics and Astronomy, 509-335-5356,