Hong Minghui

Researcher Partners Company to Scale Up Microscopy Technology

Co-founder and Director, Phaos Technology

 Singapore-based startup Phaos Technology launched Optonano200 - an advanced microscopy technology that allows microscopes to see smaller samples in a cost-effective way. Professor Hong Minghui, co-founder and director of Phaos Technology, tells us more about this latest technology.

Professor Hong Minghui (left), with Mr Yosuke Kondo, President and CEO of SIGMAKOKI Co., at the Photonics West 2020 event, where OptoNano200 was launched in February.

 It was in the 17th century that the wish of seeing our micro-world clearly was granted by the invention of the optical microscope. Since the gift of light, research fields including biomedical sciences, chemistry, materials science, and electronics have seen tremendous progress.

But with progress comes the demand to see the tiniest specimen, leading to a technical bottleneck caused by the optical diffraction limit imposed by the illumination wavelength. Ways to circumvent this include applying electron beams or near-field optical probe as mapping tools to sketch the surface textures of tiny samples. In 2014, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to a team of scientists for developing fluorescence microscopy, which uses fluoresence tags to image nanostructures at very high resolution.

However, according to Professor Hong, these methods could result in inevitable modifications or even damage to these samples. His microsphere-assisted technology aims to address this shortfall.

Your latest microscopy technology uses microsphere to upgrade the magnification
of microscopes by up to four times. Could you explain to us – in simple terms – what is microsphere-assisted microscopy technology?

Our technology uses microspheres – or miniature glass spheres – to turn existing microscopes into nanoscopes, upgrading the magnification of microscopes by up to four times. Using our patented technology, microscopes can be easily turned into nanoscopes by inserting these microspheres. This significantly increases the magnification of the objects that the microscopes are looking at, at an affordable price. OptoNano200 is able to see objects up to 200 nanometres.

What are some of the market applications of the OptoNano technology?

Optical microsphere nanoscope can be used widely in situations where micro or nano-structures need to be imaged. Some use cases include disease analyses, fast screening of defects in semiconductor structures, and vivid, real-time demonstration of activities in micro or nano systems. The market share in nanoscopy could reach tens of billions (in USD).

 One of the advantages of OptoNano200 is that it allows non-contact observation of nanoscale objects, without the need for specimen treatment. How big of an impact do you think this would be for the health and biomedical sciences field?

For life science and biomedical observations, it is critical to keep specimens uncontaminated and intact to ensure reliable results. With the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, it becomes even more critical to be able to identify and study viruses without contaminating the samples. We hope that in future, our OptoNano product line can enable the rapid discovery of new viruses and aid in the creation of advanced treatments for these viruses.

Tell us more about your experience working with SIGMAKOKI Co Ltd. How does the partnership with SIGMAKOKI contribute to the development of OptoNano200?

We see synergy in partnering SIGMAKOKI. The company has over 40 years of experience in manufacturing optical and opto-mechanical parts for scientific research as well as the photonics sector. Combining SIGMAKOKI’s high standards in manufacturing with our advanced technology in optical microscopy produces a world-class product for the optical microscopy industry.

What has been your most surprising finding in developing OptoNano200?

While the usual time taken for research to be translated into an actual product is about five to ten years, we were able to develop OptoNano200 in three years from the completion of the research under the NRF’s Competitive Research Programme. I attribute this to the strong research and enterprise ecosystem in Singapore which provided us with the right resources and networks to commercialise the product.

What is your end objectives for Phaos Technology, and how would you get there?

Our dream is to establish a flourishing optical industry in Singapore and then expand our market share worldwide. I believe this is possible as our technology can be used in many products. To realise our ambition, we will build manufacturing lines to make advanced optics systems that are centered around cutting-edge technologies. Optical technology is a deep technology that relies not on natural resources, but human intelligence and innovation. Singapore’s deep scientific capabilities make the field of science a logical area for Singapore to compete and achieve excellence in.

What valuable lessons did your research in this area teach you?

I had the opportunity to meet many outstanding partners. These include my team members, government and industry partners, and investors. I learnt that the key to the success of any venture is the the ability to inspire and motivate talented people to come together to achieve a common goal.

Professor Hong and his team received the NRF’s Competitive Research Programme grant in 2012 to conduct research in microsphere technology. His research spin-off Phaos Technology was started in 2017.


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