Interview conducted by by Will Soutter
In this Insights from Industry interview, Benoît Dagon, CEO of Imina Technologies, talks to Will Soutter about their miBot range of manipulators for microscope sample characterization.
WS: First of all, can you give us an intro to Imina Technologies?
BD: Imina Technologies was founded in 2009 as a spin-off company from the Robotics Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, with the goal of bringing to market the results of over 10 years of research in high precision miniature robotics.
Our vision was to develop robotized instruments that would make physical interaction with objects at micro- and nano-scales much easier than ever before, to help scientists and engineers get faster results from their experiments under the microscope.
Since the very beginning, many people shared our vision - we were lucky to have support from public and private partners, which allowed us to commercialize the first version of our robots only a year after we started Imina Technologies. We then won several awards that further acknowledged both the innovation and the business potential of our technology.
WS: Can you tell us about the miBot products - how do they work and what are they used for?
BD: The miBot is a unique piezo-based manipulator. Contrary to conventional stationary nanopositioners, the miBot is a mobile robot. It is virtually untethered and free to move over the surface of a stage which can be up to several square centimeters.
About the size of a dice, the monolithic body of the miBot embeds an extremely compact piezoelectric actuator with three degrees of freedom (DoF). The independent vertical arm provides a fourth DoF to the device. Since each DoF is along or around a natural axis, it is very intuitive to position the probes or sensors carried by the device.
Imina Technologies portable platform with three miBot manipulators operated under an optical microscope to carry out tests on electronic devices.
The miBots are typically used as micromanipulators under a microscope to assist an operator in, for instance, the positioning of probe tips on electronic devices, or in the handling of nanoparticles and biological samples.
They extend the human hands to interact with precision and stability with very small specimens, either to manipulate and assemble them or to characterize their physical properties.
WS: What are the main types of users that the miBots are aimed at?
BD: We target users whose experiments take place under SEM or light microscopes, and have to position, handle, and sense samples at the micro- and nano-scale with changing geometries, dimensions and properties.
Most of our users are researchers in fields such as materials science, nanoelectronics and microbiology, but we are also having an increasing interest from R&D engineers at private companies involved with the testing of MEMS and semiconductor devices.
Microscope facility managers also like to have the miBots as optional accessories that can extend the capabilities of their microscopes. This allows them to increase the use of their equipment without requiring any permanent modification of the vacuum chamber.
Also, because these instruments are easy to operate, students at any level are allowed to use them by themselves for lab assignments; the risk of damaging a sample is low and it is a fun way to give them a taste of cutting-edge experimental research.
WS: What are the main configurations that you offer?
BD: Our offering divides into three main product lines with a high level of upgradability between each other. These are the Portable, the Compact, and the Nanoprobing solutions.
Quick alignment of Imina Technologies nanoprobers around a die before closing the door of the SEM chamber and starting in situ electrical measurements.
The Nanoprobing is our newest solution. It is for those interested in carrying out low current electrical measurements inside the chamber of an electron microscope.
The complete package features 4 independent probes with nanometer-resolution positioning over millimeter range of displacements. The platform fits in any circular volume of 10 cm in diameter, offering the possibility to retrofit virtually any SEM, even those with a small chamber.
The Compact product line is for those looking for a high degree of integration with their equipment, whether it is an inverted microscope or an optical breadboard. A variety of components is offered, to minimize the footprint of the manipulators and fully take advantage of the ultra-small size of the miBots.
Finally, the Portable line is our best selling solution, which allows the users to install an advanced computer-controlled "probe station" in only a few minutes under most microscopes available in R&D labs. It is also ideal if you have experiments that take place both under electron and optical microscopes.
WS: You have recently released updates to your products, aiming to make them the "Swiss Army knife" of positioning - what capabilities have you added?
BD: The small size of the miBot provides great advantages compared to larger positioners whose size involves vibrations when they move. We wanted to keep that advantage while giving our customers a larger choice of tools that they can mount on the miBot.
The spectrum of compatible probe tips has been enlarged with probes of various sizes and materials that now make the miBot a clear alternative to bulkier and less precise probe station micromanipulators.
As well as electric probes, it is also possible to attach fibers of a few tenths of microns in diameter, such as optical fibers and SNOM fiber probes, enabling to deliver and collect light locally from a sample.
Third party micro-grippers can also be mounted and powered by the miBot and controlled from the same user interface, making it very convenient to handle micron size particles. And we are now about to release a very advanced micropipette holder that will allow the user to manipulate cells and dispense liquid and gas.
All these tools get attached to the arm of the same miBot with a proprietary mechanism that makes their exchange or replacement very fast and convenient.
A miBot manipulator can be used to position precisely an optical fiber over a sample for localized light collection and delivery.
WS: How does this expand the range of applications your products can be used in?
BD: While a probe tip is usually the tool that is used to manipulate and physically interact with materials at nanoscale, more elaborate tools such as grippers and pipettes are often necessary to perform similar operations at the micron scale. With these tools, we aim at developing the market of robot assisted manipulation under light microscopes.
WS: How customizable are your solutions?
BD: We are working hard to make our products turnkey for a majority of applications. It is true that in research we sometimes get specific demands to integrate them into unusual setups and microscopes and a customization is required. For these cases, there are three components on which we can play to tailor our products to the customer's needs.
The first one is on the tool holder. Depending on what you are interested in moving, we can propose specific holders that would allow you to mount it with ease to the miBot arm. This is, for instance, what we offered to a customer who makes their own AFM probes.
Although the various electro-mechanical components of the Compact product line provide several ways to attach the miBot to an experimental test bench, the second element that you could want to customize is the geometry of the miBot stage.
Finally, for those who would like to integrate the control of the miBots into their own software, we also offer a software development kit (SDK).
WS: Imina is a fairly new company - how have users responded to your products so far?
BD: In 2014, we celebrate our fifth anniversary and I can say that we are really happy with the journey so far. Our solutions are trusted by scientists and engineers from some of the most famous research institutes worldwide, and the installed base is still growing at a fast and steady pace.
We are getting great feedback from our customers on the quality of our products, and the support and services that we provide. This confirms our novel approach to robotics under the microscope, which provides more flexibility to the user without compromising on precision and stability.
WS: Can you tell us about any of your plans for developing your products in the future?
BD: We are actively listening to our customers and, both in labs of research institutes and private companies, we see a growing need for instruments that would allow engineers to "create" at micro- and nano-scales as effectively as with their own hands.
Our goal is thus of course to be able to offer the huge benefits of the miBot technology in terms of speed of experimentation to more and more users, while continuing to strongly emphasize the quality and design of our products.
Our instruments provide great added value to many applications, and remain simple to operate despite the complexity of operations they are used for.
About Benoît Dagon
Dr. Benoît Dagon currently serves as CEO of Imina Technologies SA, a company he co-founded in 2009.
Before that, he conducted a research project at Stanford University and completed a PhD in the field of computer assisted surgery at EPFL Robotics Laboratory.
Dr. Dagon also holds a M.S. from EPFL in microengineering with specialization in robotics and industrial manufacturing.