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Mashing your eyes up against a microscope and peering through a small viewfinder isn’t the most enjoyable or effective way to look at bugs and bacteria.

Exo Labs seems to have a good fix for that.

The Seattle startup has developed a microscope camera that can link to iOS devices — including the iPad — for a more interactive scientific viewing experience. The idea earned Exo first place at Tuesday’s First Look Forum, presented by the Northwest Entrepreneur Network.

The four-person company impressed the investor judges at the Forum, a culmination of a coaching program for early-stage entrepreneurs from the Pacific Northwest. Exo Labs won nine months of free office space from Martin Selig Real Estate.

Co-founder and president Michael Baum says his team had been thinking for years about ideas for iOS-connected devices. They found that the concept of iPad/iPhone cameras with microscopes had the most potential, both for building a business and providing benefit to users.

From left: Co-founder Jeff Stewart, Co-founder Michael Baum and VP of Sales and Marketing George Cawman of Exo Labs won first place at this week’s First Look Forum.

“The real spark of inspiration came from being a parent, realizing that every kid is a scientist — they are naturally bursting with curiosity, asking what, why, how, where,” says Baum.

Exo’s debut product is the Focus Microscope Camera, a modular camera that can be attached via cable to microscopes, telescopes and other optical devices to be used with a free Exo app. There are similar devices in the market, Baum says, but they use the built-in camera on iPhones to look through eyepieces.

“This makes it very difficult to interact with what you are viewing and also causes optical distortion since the lenses built into iOS devices are not optimized for this kind of use,” he said.

An image of gnarly insect legs taken with the Focus Microscope Camera.

Prospective customers have contacted the company about buying the product, but Exo is holding off on finalizing sales until Apple confirms that the products meet their requirements. Exo is part of the MFi program that allows external vendors to develop hardware that works with Apple devices. They’ve been given permission to do everything up to this point and are simply waiting for the final licensing approval.

So far the response from potential customers has been excellent and users are impressed with the ability to capture, share, analyze and interact with what they are viewing on-screen.

Exo was founded last December and plans to target classrooms because of exponential growth of iPads in schools, but they’re also seeing significant interest from science, engineering, business, medical and consumer areas as well.

The company is bootstrapped but closing angel financing soon. Baum says they’ll be hiring more employees, so the office space will “definitely” be used.

Listed below are four other finalists at the Forum who were awarded with free screening rounds with four firms: Alliance of AngelsSeraph CapitalKeiretsu Forum and Zino Society.

  • SuperCritical Technologies – Manufactures modular, efficient power plants, using biomass ranging from corn husks to cow chips.
  • Suncrest Farm – Changing the way the world grows food. Local, organic, greenhouses.
  • Utrip – An artificial intelligence solution that helps travelers plan, purchase, manage and share the trip of their dreams in minutes. Competes with Tripit and Trip Advisor.
  • TalkToTheManager – Every customer leaves happy. Receive and respond to immediate, anonymous customer comments by text messaging.

Rounding out the top 12, here’s a look at the other presenters:

  • 2Morrow Mobile  – Offers a behavior-change platform that helps people live healthier, happier, and more productive lives.
  • Back on Track – Web-based software enables mental health providers to easily track their patients’ progress over time. Seattle Children’s Hospital was its first partner.
  • Easyway Apartments – Find an apartment online by using smart technology that matches renters with landlords. The e-harmony for renters and landlords, who pay $250 for a successful match.
  • Flash Volunteer – Provides web-based and movile volunteer engagement tools that allow users to easily participate in local service opportunities, while providing enterprise clients with premium engagement features to manage, measure and scale their employee and student volunteer programs.
  • Geolopigs – Play anywhere, anytime with location-based games.
  • Parent Valet Inc. – Tools that help families fulfill their educational goals for their children.
  • SnapSwap Inc. – Develops and operates the games currencies exchange, which allows players to exchange currency in one game for currency in any other game or for cash.

The First Look Forum has graduated such varied companies as bootstrapped and Kickstarter-funded BodSix, angel-backed Cadence Biomedical, and investor relations platform ir2020. Check out the results from the spring forum here.

Editor’s note: GeekWire’s Rebecca Lovell, who contributed to this report, is a NWEN board member.

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