French startup Argolight goes to space!

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Argolight is a small French company, founded in 2012 by Dr. Arnaud Royon and Gautier Papon, CEO, just after he finished his Ph.D. Based in Pessac, in the South West of France, the startup is a spin-off the Bordeaux University: they turned a technology issued from research into a viable product. Like most cutting-edge technology, their product is the result of the cumulative efforts of several research teams over dozen of years (from Bordeaux University and the CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research). They provide stable tools for the quality control of fluorescence-based systems.

In the spring of 2014, while Argolight was still an 18-month old company with four people working in a small room at the University of Bordeaux, the CEO was contacted by somebody named Christian, who asked for their help to improve the accuracy of his microscope… on the International Space Station! In fact, Christian is the lead optical engineer for an historic NASA contractor based out of Cleveland, Ohio, in the NASA’s Glenn Research Center (GRC) . The ISS is equipped with several microscopes for different applications. Most of them study the growth of organisms in low gravity.

The microscope Christian was talking about is the NASA LMM (Light Microscopy Module). It is a heavily customized system based on a LEICA RXA microscope. The system comes in a huge rackable box with exposed wiring, brass and metal parts. It currently features high-resolution black and white microscopy, bright field, epifluorescence (EPI) and fluorescent techniques. Christian contacted Argolight about those fluorescence features.

The company had already had some success selling its product to big pharma companies such as Sanofi or Roche, but was still using a rapid iteration method for improving its product. Its strategy at the time was to produce very small batches of products, no more than 10 at once, try to sell them, get the most feedback as possible from the user and modify the product accordingly. As a result, this strategy had made them very flexible and able to adapt quickly their process. Thus even though they were clearly not manufacturing products to Space standards when the Nasa contractor contacted us, they took the opportunity and crossed fingers.

Eventually, Argolight technology will ship to space in the upcoming SpaceX Spx CRS 11 – Falcon 9 launch planned for May 2017: an extraordinary story which takes its roots in University of Bordeaux buildings and demonstrates the success of top-notch french scientists in the US!

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Author :
- Jean Rosenbaum, Attaché for Science & Technology, Los Angeles,