Three years ago, Thomas Larson of Olympia, a former North Thurston High School student who had recently graduated from the University of Washington, had a hit on his hands.
Putting his mechanical engineering degree to work, he had manufactured a piece of silicon into a tiny lens that fits over the built-in camera found on a smartphone or tablet. Larson also had given the tiny lens various degrees of magnification power, turning our ubiquitous smartphone devices into microscopes, strong enough to study plants, insects, minerals or electronics.
His product and fledgling business was a finalist in a UW business plan competition. Then he found a wider audience on Kickstarter, the fundraising website. Three campaigns later and Cell Focus LLC of Olympia, which does business as Micro Phone Lens, had netted $230,000. Larson put that money right back into the business, including investing in optic molding equipment.
To date he has sold 25,000 to 30,000 lenses — about 1,000 of them in the past month. The business has finally reached the point where it can be sustained on recent sales, without the need for Kickstarter, said Larson, 25. If sales remain strong, he expects to hire his first employees.
For the moment, though, it continues to be a one-man shop. He manufactures Tuesdays and Thursdays and handles customer service, plus shipping and handling, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Wearing different hats is sometimes difficult, he said, and he has had to compete with similar versions of his product. Larson is ready to compete.
“If I’m not making the best product, then I’d rather be doing something else,” he said.
His technology patent is still pending, and he recently heard from the U.S. Patent Office, suggesting he pursue three patents to cover his invention, Larson said.
He has four products to date: The most popular is the 15x lens — a lens with 15-times magnification — as well as 4x, 8x and 150x lenses. The 150-times magnification lens is intended for scientific users. It comes with slides and a separate light source.
Individual users are his biggest customers, followed by schools. He recently demonstrated his product at a Kent Middle School science fair. He also has marketed his product at trade shows, including a National Science Teachers Association gathering in Portland, and plans to attend a gathering of master gardeners. He thinks his product can be used to help growers identify pests.
The medical community also has provided feedback. Larson has been in touch with Dr. Richard Whitten, an Olympia-based pathologist who thinks his technology might be helpful in diagnosing cervical cancer in Third World countries. Larson hired a nurse, who traveled to South Sudan and used his product to identify schistosoma, or parasitic flatworms, a leading cause of disease.
After starting the business, Larson moved to Des Moines with his girlfriend, Chloe, a civil engineer, because her job was in Seattle. She has since found work in Olympia, which means he expects to return to the area in a year or two.
By then, Larson would like to have a storefront of his own, he said.