When Manuel Ausserre talks about his startup microscopy company, he adopts the American spirit of opportunity-taking as his infant firm’s credo. “I really believe the most potential for our technology will prove to be in the U.S.,” he says with a wistful air of confidence. “ The No. 1 reason for this is the spirit of Americans and the people who’ve come to America and share that spirit. America is a country that’s opportunity-driven. When Americans see an opportunity with great potential — they go for it. In Europe we’re great followers, but the truth is we don’t buy new high tech machines until the American people have bought them.”
Ausserre founded Watch Live two years ago with the help of his father, a leading optical scientist with the French research agency CNRS. Based in Lyon, France, Ausserre is the sales and marketing mastermind behind a new technique in high-power microscopy (the discipline that encompasses microscopes and microscopic imaging} that could make mass producible graphene oxide closer to reality.
Although Manuel’s father Dominique only works for Watch Live as a consultant, the junior Ausserre has hired a young optical specialist to handle the scientific end of the business. So what is the science of Watch Live?
“It’s a simplified optical imaging technique used to detect and identify, in real time, nano objects on specified surfaces,” explains Ausserre. Nano, he adds, means very, very small. And while Ausserre isn’t the scientist in the two-person company, he’s plenty informed. He explains that ‘small,’ in the context of the non-computer-assisted, traditional lens optics method Watch Live employs — means individual graphene-sheet small. Dominique Ausserre invented the technique four years ago to detect targets as tiny and thin as two-dimensional crystal constructions, like graphene and its carbon cousins. Manuel carries on the mission of bringing it to market.
And the market could be huge. Commercial and research firms around the world are working on optimizing nano materials, with graphene being the holy grail because of its unsurpassed conductive and impermeability properties. Real-world products that go better with graphene include sensors, batteries, conductive ink and tennis rackets. The challenge has been reliable supplies of functional graphene derivatives that are available in the right quantity, and right purity, for the job at hand.
Now imagine a lightweight, highly affordable microscope made from off-the-shelf- components that can image graphene sheets. The images tell the user, within three minutes, vital information that affects the quality of the material. This data that includes the number of graphene layers and the integrity of the sheet’s hexagonal structure, which can dramatically change its properties.
“To achieve a consistent, high-quality supply of graphene, you will require norms, or standards, that the user can easily evaluate,” Aussere says. “Right now in Europe, Asia and America, people in business and government are working to determine the norms that define production-quality graphene. We have an instrument that is ideal for the non-scientist nano material user. It’s no more complex than the basic microscope we all remember from biology class.”
That ease of use compares to today’s high-powered Raman and Autostigmatic (ASM) microscopes that depend on computers and measure time per image in many minutes or even hours instead of less than 3 minutes. Ausserre explains that the optical technology typically used in laboratories reflects a kind of computer-assisted scanning technique that is capable of imaging the shape of tiny objects down to 2 nanometers.
Sometimes — as with a radio telescope vs. a telescope featuring only a large optical lens — degree of detail is vital to scientific advancement. But it’s not always what a factory foreman needs to move the assembly line. “This level of complexity presents a barrier to commercial users,” Ausserre says. “Our system is a simple, useful tool that you don’t need a PhD to operate. With our microscope, using off-the-shelf parts, we can detect, with extreme sensitivity, the presence of an object on a surface at extremely small sizes. The difference is, you’re seeing those images in real time through a really big lens as they exist and not as reconfigured by a computer. ”
As an example, Ausserre points to a current study using the Watch Live technology that images the movement of charged ions between two sheets of graphene in a prototype for a nano battery. “Many researchers around the world are trying to build tiny architectures to stock ions more efficiently,” he explains. “The problem is there is close to no solution — outside of a particle collider — to see the movement of ions between these storage and discharge phases. Nano battery makers will need to measure how many ions are stocked in these small systems. If you could see the ion waves moving in this system, see how fast they’re moving, and in what direction in real time, you would have a very valuable tool. Our technique allows us to see those live phenomenon at nano scales easily.”
Jumpstart for Watch Live
Ausserre expects the ion battery study to be published in Science Advances in April or May, and he hopes that date could mark Watch Live’s real jumpstart. “Before mass production, we need to get to mass demand,” he says. For a new microscopy technique to be adopted by the worldwide scientific community, it needs to receive the notoriety of a major discovery or new commercial prospects won’t trust the machine.”
Ausserre expects to staff up his “bootstrap” operation after the article hits. Currently, at his Lyon office, he depends on donations from friends, used furniture and off-the-shelf lab equipment. Expanding markets and entrepreneurial-generated opportunities for Watch Live depends on graphene evolving from the laboratory to the factory.
“I see Asia as the biggest market for graphene development with South Korea as the highest graphene-related patent producer,” Ausserre says. “Samsung alone will be averaging 1,000 patents a year.”
Although Europe has been leading the academic research effort to develop the world’s strongest material, Ausserre says funding from the European Commission- supported by Graphene Flagship’s 10-year, 1 billion Euros budget is uneven. Only one quarter of the graphene players on the continent have a piece of that pie, he adds.
That’s why the business school-educated would-be microscope mogul is pushing his growth projection chips toward America. “The U.S. is well positioned to take advantage of commercial viability for graphene products,” Ausserre says. “European business people, and the rest of the world, tend to wait for major scientific discoveries to be published in American journals before they invest heavily. American investors, on the other hand, don’t want to get left behind. They’re not as risk-averse as the European business community.”
Ausserre plans to play under the radar of optics industry giants like Nikon, Olympus, Leica and Oxford Instruments. “We’re up against some huge companies, but thankfully, they don’t normally take an interest in a niche market,” he says. “It’s true that all the big players are investing in real-time imaging of nano materials, including two-dimensional objects like graphene. Fortunately, they go there with more complex, costly components so we’re not really competing in the same value arena.”
Ultimately, Ausserre believes the growth of Watch Live is closely linked with one positive forecast: Mass-producible, use-functionalized graphene derivatives will change the world in the next decade.
He is betting on his marketing plan that the majority of graphene users in the future will be operating in factory, or even warehouse, environments. Watch Live’s sweetspot is the space where fast, relatively low-tech product assessment is a treasured asset. “The instruments created by the major optical companies offer awesome performance with all the cost associated with complex software and huge R&D budgets,” he says. “The customers we’re targeting can’t necessarily afford that cost. More importantly, they don’t want or need that complexity.”
‘Keep it simple, stupid’, is an old American saying. There’s nothing stupid about Manuel Aussere’s approach to cashing in on the planet’s emerging gold standard of smart, conductive nano material. It’s graphene, not gold, and he’s just a passionate Frenchman with good old American common sense.