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Nearly 6 billion people in the world use cellphones — and about 70 percent of those users live in developing countries.

Those statistics gave UCLA electrical engineering professor Aydogon Ozcan an idea. “The cellphone is the ultimate Swiss Army knife tool — rarely used to talk but doing many other functions,” he says. As cellphones become more cost-effective, he explains, they will be used for more tasks, even functions that for a century have been relegated to laboratories with bulky and expensive equipment.

Ozcan's big idea? Put phones to work improving health conditions around the globe. He's hacked the software and light-emitting capabilities of an average cellphone to make it function as a sophisticated microscope. LED lights are focused on a slide or sample placed on top of the phone's image sensor. The filtered light exposes distinctive qualities of cells — biological cells, that is, as opposed to phones — which then are interpreted by his custom software. This allows a more accurate diagnosis in a matter of minutes. No more sending blood off to a lab and waiting days or weeks for the results.

The attachment to make a phone work as a microscope weighs only about an ounce and costs less than $10. And, as an alternative for people whose cellphones don't have built-in cameras, Ozcan's group at UCLA also created a stand-alone, lensless microscope, which requires only a USB connection for power. It uploads the captured shadow images to a laptop or cellphone for transmission.

Ozcan sees uses for the cheap, portable microscopes everywhere. Health workers in the developing world could run malaria tests on the back of a motorbike: “We envision samples prepared in front of the patient and analyzed by field-portable devices, which would cut down on the need for going back and forth. The point of care could be brought to the location.”

Field tests using the cellphone microscopes have begun in Africa.

Another application could bring the technology closer to home. In the United States alone, there are 40 million houses with their own wells, and Ozcan says the device could be used to monitor the quality of drinking water. “People could use their cellphone to look for pathogenic bacteria in their drinking water.”

The system could also do home tests, such as quantifying the quality of sperm for couples trying to conceive.

The widespread availability of phones drives the technology, with 2 billion new phones manufactured every year. “We're already in a situation where there are more cellphones than people in the world,” Ozcan says.

Increasing the number of microscopes worldwide — for any number of applications — would allow scientists to learn new things because of a massive, connected set of scopes working together.

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