NOAA SBIR Program Successes

NOAA-funded tool uses fluorescence to help scientists see tiny coral...and much more

NOAA-funded tool uses fluorescence to help scientists see tiny coral...and much more

About the Technology

NIGHTSEA, a former subsidiary of Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI), develops a diverse array of products for viewing and imaging fluorescence at a wide range of scales. In 2006, NIGHTSEA founder Charles Mazel, Ph.D., completed a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II project through NOAA to develop fluorescence-based tools for detecting recently settled corals, on the order of a few millimeters in size, both on natural reef surfaces and on artificial substrates brought back to the laboratory. The prototype products included hand-held flashlights that enabled divers to detect these tiny specimens on the reef both at night and in the daytime and a simple adapter that added a fluorescence capability to existing stereo microscopes. While the original motivation for the core technologies was this NOAA SBIR topic to detect baby corals, the solutions have proved to have far broader application in academia and industry, including marine biology, medical and biological research, entomology, forensic sciences, microplastics research, agriculture, undergraduate education, STEM outreach and much more.

Meeting the Challenge

Juvenile corals that have recently settled onto a reef surface are approximately 1mm diameter, making them nearly impossible to find on natural reef surfaces with conventional visual search techniques. In the 6 – 12 months it takes juvenile corals to grow large enough to be found by SCUBA divers, researchers have already missed the early life history, leaving many research questions unanswerable. As one way to get around this, researchers would deploy settlement tiles about 20cm (8 in) square on the reef, collect them months later, and then examine them under a conventional stereo microscope. Even with the microscope, using white light to pick out corals was a meticulous process. Marine scientists needed improved techniques to detect juvenile coral both on the reef and on the settlement tiles. Fluorescence, the phenomenon by which a specimen absorbs one color of light and emits another, can help distinguish tiny corals from their surroundings, making them easier to locate. The goal of this NOAA SBIR project was to identify and develop fluorescence-based solutions that marine biologists could use both in the field and in the laboratory.

SBIR Program Benefits

Charles Mazel, Ph.D., Principal Research Scientist at PSI, received the 2003 Phase I NOAA SBIR Award ($74,969) and the follow-on 2004 Phase II Award ($299,208) for “Fluorescence Imagery for Rapid Estimates of the Distribution and Abundance of Coral Recruits.” Dr. Mazel was also the manager of NIGHTSEA LLC, at that time a subsidiary of PSI established to supply fluorescence equipment primarily for recreational SCUBA divers, so it was natural for him to apply for the Award when he saw the topic in the NOAA solicitation. NIGHTSEA was the intended commercialization outlet for any products developed in the project. Mazel teamed with Alina Szmant, Ph.D. of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, a leading researcher in coral recruitment, to ensure that any solutions developed in the program would directly address the  needs of practicing scientists. The SBIR effort led directly to several technologies, including:

A simple fluorescence excitation flashlight for use by divers to find juvenile coral, also known as coral recruits, on natural reef surfaces at night

A specialized flashlight that enables detection of small fluorescing subjects even in the daytime

An adapter that adds an effective fluorescence capability to existing stereo microscopes, making it easier to find specimens on settlement tiles

In 2009 NIGHTSEA became an independent company that Mazel now runs full time, with a royalty paid to PSI for licensing of the technology. All of the SBIR-inspired items are still in production in various forms. The adapter, a simple, modular system for adding fluorescence to virtually any existing stereo microscope for a fraction of the cost of a conventional fluorescence stereo microscope, has evolved into a versatile tool with applications far beyond the original goal of detecting small corals. The tool has also spawned a variety of accessories which have been adapted to a broader range of microscopes.

Mazel attributes the success of NIGHTSEA to the support for the product provided by the NOAA SBIR program, and the demand for equipment that would work in the field. “The challenge of working underwater in the dark is a great motivator for making simple, reliable gear that just plain gets the job done,” said Mazel “This mindset guides the design of everything that NIGHTSEA produces to view and image fluorescence, wherever you need to work.”

Sustainable Success

NIGHTSEA’s cumulative sales are now well over $5M. NIGHTSEA equipment is used at more than 1700 research and educational institutions in 55 countries, and by many industrial, law enforcement, and other customers. More than 300 refereed papers cite NIGHTSEA equipment in their methods sections. These papers appear in over 170 different journals, illustrating the diversity of applications. A small sample of journal titles – Coral Reefs, Limnology & Oceanography, Genetics, Cancer Research, Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research, Autism Research, Stem Cell Research & Therapy, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biology Education, Environmental Conservation, Plant Methods, Industrial Crops and Products – shows that the NOAA-initiated products from NIGHTSEA are contributing to the study of fundamental processes, human disease, undergraduate education, practical approaches to solving food challenges, enhanced knowledge of the world around us, and much more.

The equipment continues to serve NOAA’s original goal to aid marine researchers. NIGHTSEA equipment is used by marine biologists around the world both underwater and in the laboratory to study coral recruitment and health and to address other issues related to understanding and stewardship of the marine environment.

PI contact information:

Charles Mazel, PhD
235-REAR Bedford St.
Lexington, MA 02420 USA
+1 781 791-9508 x5
+1 617 633-2495 (mobile)
+1 781 791-9519 (fax)


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More links

  • NIGHTSEACompany's website
  • UsersResearch and educational institutions using NIGHTSEA equipment
  • Citations Publications citing use of NIGHTSEA equipment



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