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Stanford bioengineer named a top innovator by Technology Review

Manu Prakash honored for ‘frugal science’ initiatives, creating instruments that make scientific exploration inexpensive.

Technology Review has named Manu Prakash, assistant professor of bioengineering, to its annual TR35 list honoring the year’s top young innovators. The magazine honored Prakash for greatly reducing the cost of scientific exploration through his numerous inventions such as a 55-cent folding microscope and a $5 chemistry lab.

"In one part of our lab we've been focusing on frugal science and democratizing scientific tools to get them out to people around the world who will use them," Prakash said in April after winning a $50,000 award to further develop his chemistry set. "I'd started thinking about this connection between science education and global health. The things that you make for kids to explore science are also exactly the kind of things that you need in the field because they need to be robust and they need to be highly versatile."

Prakash grew up in northern India and has worked in Uganda, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and other developing countries, making him familiar with limitations that might not be apparent in well-equipped academic labs. His insights have led to devices such as the Foldoscope, a research-grade microscope made of plastic-impregnated paper, and the OScan, a 3-D-printed smartphone add-on that helps diagnose the oral carcinomas that are responsible for 40 percent of cancer-related deaths in India.

Prakash and his team also invented a microfluidic chemistry lab inspired by a hand-cranked music box. The prototype includes a hand-cranked wheel and paper tape with periodic holes punched by the user. When a pin encounters a hole in the tape, it flips and activates a pump that releases a single drop from a channel. In the simplest design, 15 independent pumps, valves and droplet generators can all be controlled simultaneously.

Although the original prototype was made from music box parts, Prakash’s team has many versions in which the crank and pins were printed on a 3-D printer from inexpensive, durable materials costing less than $5.

The TR35 recognizes the world’s top innovators under age 35, spanning biotechnology, computer and electronics hardware and software, energy, the web, and nanotechnology, among other emerging fields.

Prakash, who joined Stanford in 2011, has won the Science Play and Research Kit Competition from the Society for Science and the Public, the Gates Foundation Explorations Award, the Baxter Foundation Junior Faculty Award, the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Award, the United Nations Foundation’s mHealth Alliance Award and the Gallery of Fluids Motion Award from the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics. He is a Pew Scholar and has been a Frederick E. Terman Fellow, a TED senior Fellow and a Junior Fellow in physics of the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Prakash received a PhD studying applied physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008, a master’s from MIT in 2004 and a bachelor’s of technology in computer science and engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in 2002.