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Semi-finalist: Submersible microscope offers a 3-D look down below

Stephen Jones is CEO of 4Deep Inwater Imaging, which makes a holographic microscope that captures 3-D images of micro-organisms.

Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

4Deep Inwater Imaging is one of the four semi-finalists in The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge Contest. The 2014 contest drew more than 1,000 entries, and a panel of judges selected the semi-finalists. The winner of the $100,000 business grant - and a suite of secondary prizes - will be announced in September.

Even science teachers may have a hard time recognizing 4Deep Inwater Imaging's submersible imaging equipment for what it is: a holographic microscope.

The compact but sturdy instrument, which has been used in waters 6,000 metres deep, captures 3-D images of micro-organisms in situ – in the ocean, or a ship's ballast, or a water reservoir, depending on the application.

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With its cylindrical design and lack of moving parts, 4Deep's microscope looks more like a fancy Thermos canister than one of science's most fundamental tools. It counts, measures and produces images of micro-organisms as small as 1 micron.

"It has no lenses, no focusing, and it has a much larger field of view than a traditional optical microscope," says Stephen Jones, CEO of 4Deep – formerly known as Resolution Optics Inc. – a Halifax company that has won a number of innovation awards.

Another key feature that sets 4Deep's submersible microscope apart from its traditional cousins – and, for that matter, from other holographic microscopes – is that it works in tandem with software that digitally reconstructs the images so rapidly that viewers looking at a computer screen can see what the microscope sees almost instantaneously. The software also analyzes particles, providing details such as total number of particles, cell size and speed of movement.

"Our protected and proprietary software is a thousand times faster than anybody else's," Mr. Jones says. "We can digitally reconstruct the images so quickly that it's virtually real-time."

The speed and analytical powers of the software, and the ability to view what's in the water right on the spot, provide a critical advantage, says Mr. Jones, who leads a team of four at 4Deep.

As an example, he cites a hypothetical case in which a lake is monitored for algae. The current procedure, which involves sending samples to a lab for microscopic analysis, takes a couple of days to get results. During this time, the algae outbreak could have spread and people might have continued swimming in the lake.

4Deep's technology can be applied in multiple sectors, from oceanography and municipal water departments to marine shipping and oil and gas. In the last one, the submersible microscope would be invaluable in an oil spill cleanup, says Mr. Jones, because it could quantify the amount of oil and rate of flow in the water.

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4Deep's product line also includes a desktop holographic microscope and a compact cuvette microscope that allows holographic imaging and analysis of liquid samples placed in a clear, finger-size receptable.

What the company needs

There's no shortage of interest in 4Deep's submersible microscope and software, Mr. Jones says. Groups such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have requested product demonstrations and trials.

The challenge for 4Deep is that it doesn't have enough demonstration units to meet these requests. Winning the Small Business Challenge contest cash grant of $100,000 would allow 4Deep to build at least five microscopes for demo purposes. This would also allow 4Deep to take advantage of volume pricing from its suppliers and purchase equipment that would make production more efficient.

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