SHORELINE, Wash. — Running a startup out of your garage may sound like a tech cliche, but for Voxa CEO Chris Own, it’s routine.
What’s not routine are the breadbox-sized electron microscopes that are sitting in Own’s garage, and in the living room that’s been converted into a workshop. One of those microscopes is scheduled to be launched to the International Space Station.
Voxa’s Mochii microscope is among the science payloads due to go into orbit inside Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo capsule, as part of an uncrewed resupply mission launching from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast. (Update for 10:13 a.m. PT Feb. 11: The launch had been scheduled for Feb. 9, but it was scrubbed minutes before liftoff due to an issue with ground support equipment. Another try is scheduled for Feb. 14.)
“The payload itself is an experiment,” Own told GeekWire at the family home in Shoreline. “It’s the first time an electron microscope — any instrument of this type of complexity in such a small, convenient form factor — has ever been flown.”
Electron microscopes fire beams of accelerated electrons to map the structure of a sample on the scale of nanometers, or analyze the elemental composition of that sample on a spot-by-spot basis. They’re standard, albeit expensive, instruments that can be found in labs around the world.
But not in space.
Today, samples from space have to be flown down to Earth in order to be analyzed using electron microscopes. Such was the case, for example, when engineers were trying to figure out what went wrong when water built up in Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s spacesuit, nearly drowning him during a spacewalk in 2013. Microscopic analysis of samples from the suit determined that tiny bits of aluminum silicate had built up in an internal fan pump separator.
Having an electron microscope aboard the station — and having it hooked up for remote access so that earthbound experts could review the data — would streamline such sleuthing. It could also open up new frontiers in space science and engineering, such as monitoring the space station’s air quality, analyzing biological samples, doing on-the-spot quality control for advanced materials or protein crystals made on the space station, and making use of resources on the moon and Mars.
“I’m expecting that there will be new applications that we haven’t even thought of, similar to how we never thought this would ever be an effective product in space,” Own said.
The Volkswagen of electron microscopes
Own didn’t start out wanting to send gizmos into space. He had a more down-to-earth goal in mind: creating a small, inexpensive electron microscope for the masses. “This is sort of the Volkswagen device for the everyman,” Own said.
To trace the genesis of Voxa, you have to go back more than a decade, to the days when Own worked as an engineer and instrument designer at companies that produced high-performance electron microscope systems. Those high-end systems typically sold for $1 million or more.
“It was really cool to be working on the bleeding edge of the field and pushing the limits of technology there,” Own recalled. “But at the same time, we were selling maybe two or three of them a year. … It remained a technology that was locked in the lab. So I thought, what if we took some of this and gave it to everyone?”
That’s what led Own to create Voxa in 2012. The first product was a line of cheaper and faster transmission electron microscopes that Voxa made for the Allen Institute of Brain Science. “We initially started there and said, ‘OK, what if we made like 5,000 of these, and put them all into a server room and scanned brains all day,” Own said. “So we kind of did that.”
We're not cutting! Now to take a few (million) pictures… pic.twitter.com/kKIAgLCdey
— Dan Bumbarger (@DanBumbarger) August 9, 2019
As time went on, the Voxa team was able to trim down and miniaturize components even more, to the point that everything could fit inside the proverbial breadbox. Much of the work was done at Own’s home, which also serves as Voxa’s corporate headquarters. Hardware fabrication was done in partnership with suppliers, some of whom serve other customers in the Seattle area’s aerospace market.
Voxa’s scanning electron microscope, or SEM, was given a tasty name: Mochii.
“Mochii is a delicious Japanese dessert, and is also cute, small and sweet, which represents perfectly the vision for our tiny little SEM,” Own said. “It’s the opposite of the big products in the electron microscopy industry, with names like Titan, Sigma, and Quanta, that need specialized facilities and cost millions of dollars.”
Making the space connection
The space connection entered the picture in 2015, when Own attended a conference on microscopy and got in touch with NASA scientists
“After a lot of discussions with NASA, we realized that there are tremendous benefits to having this capability — like a reading capability, or an elemental analysis capability — in low Earth orbit,” Own said.
Voxa won contracts totaling about $461,000 from NASA to support further development of the Mochii microscope for use in space. Last June, the device was tested during an underwater research mission conducted by NASA. That cleared the way for a flightworthy Mochii to take its place aboard the Cygnus cargo craft due for departure this weekend.
“We were actually going to go with SpaceX, but we were early, which is really neat,” Own said.
Another thing that’s neat about Mochii is the remote-operation feature, which will make it possible for researchers to steer the space microscope from earthly labs over a secure online connection.
Multiple researchers can look at the same picture simultaneously, and add pointers and annotations that are shared with the rest of the group in real time.
To minimize the time that busy astronauts have to spend maintaining the machine, Mochii is designed to make replacing worn-out components as easy as replacing the ink cartridge on a printer.
Voxa is planning to sell Mochii microscope systems to earthly users for around $65,000 each. And if the space-bound instrument passes its orbital tests, that could open up a whole new market for Own’s home-grown company.
“Potential customers who want to take advantage of Mochii for microgravity science and engineering on ISS should contact Voxa,” Own said in an email.
In short, Voxa is aiming to turn space-based electron microscopy into a cloud computing service, where the server just happens to be high above the clouds.