Echo, a San Diego startup that has developed a digital, all-in-one microscope, says today it has closed on $7.5 million in a Series A round led by San Francisco-based Dolby Family Ventures and Southern California’s Tech Coast Angels.
In a phone interview this afternoon, founder Eugene Cho (the E.Cho in Echo) tells me the three-year-old startup will use the funding to significantly increase production of its Revolve hybrid microscope. The product is believed to be the first to combine the features of an upright microscope (for viewing prepared microorganisms in glass slides) and an inverted microscope (for viewing live samples in a petri dish, illuminated from below).
The instrument, used primarily in clinical laboratories and by cancer and stem cell scientists, also has integrated Apple’s iPad for displaying high-resolution images, storing images in the cloud, and controlling the camera itself. “The iPad is not just for taking pictures and managing images,” Cho says. “It controls the microscope [e.g. light intensity], it talks to the microscope through a wireless connection.”
Medical labs often need both an upright microscope and an inverted microscope, which typically cost between $18,000 and $40,000 each, Cho says. The Revolve microscope can perform both functions for roughly the price of one instrument, he says. Microscopes are a core workhorse tool in many labs, and as a Nikon microscope salesman for 14 years, Cho says, “We were trained to ask customers, ‘Do you use an upright or inverted microscope?’ It was the first thing we asked them.”
Echo, previously known as Echo Laboratories, was running at nearly twice its first-year sales projections in 2016 when the company received a fairly large order from distributors in Asia, Cho says. In a statement from the company today, Cho says, “The science community’s response to Echo has exceeded anything we could have predicted.”
Customers include Stanford University; UC San Francisco; Harvard University; Yale University; 23andMe; Pfizer; and the National Institutes of Health. Cho estimates the global market for optical microscopes will be $6 billion by 2021, with most of that, perhaps $4 billion, addressable by Echo’s digital hybrid microscope.
In December, Connect, the San Diego nonprofit organization, named Echo’s Revolve microscope as the “most innovative new product” in the category of life science diagnostics and research tools. Cho also won top honors in October at the San Diego Tech Coast Angels “Quick Pitch” competition.
At such events, Cho says he’s often asked, “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” In reflection, he says the introduction of Apple’s high-resolution Retina display technology was the key innovation that made it possible to combine microscope features.
“I studied a lot of markets,” Cho recalls. “I looked at how other industries took existing hardware requirements and merged multiple purposes into one product,” like the all-in-one printer. He founded Echo in October 2013 to take a similar, all-in-one approach to laboratory microscopes. By mid-2014, Cho says he felt confident enough to quit his job and work full-time at the startup.