Many physical scientists at some point in their careers believe they have a brilliant idea for a commercial product based on their research. But there is a world of difference between excitedly sharing that idea with a colleague over a cup of coffee and actually creating a successful product that can slot nicely into a gap in the market. In this pair of video interviews, Physics World meets business professionals involved in the process of commercializing scientific research.
In this first interview, venture capitalist Stan Reiss explains what people in his profession do. Reiss, who works for the international firm Matrix Partners, talks about how spin-off companies can seek financial investment from a range of different sources, including venture capitalists and angel investors. He also discusses the types of things he is personally looking for when deciding whether to invest in a science-based spin-off.
“Not all markets are big, not all inventions are equally useful,” he says. “If you’re going to take that kind of risk, particularly in a physics-based thing that has a lot of technical risk in it, then that risk only makes sense if the upside is commensurate.”
Later in the interview, Reiss explains what business professionals mean when they talk about the “valley of death”, a phase all spin-offs must navigate in the early stages of product development. “That is a situation where you’ve gotten off the ground, you’ve built the team, and the results are not yet there in order for you to be commercial,” he says. “In physics-based start-ups that happens very, very frequently because physics is hard and commercializing physics can take a very long time.”
In the second interview we meet Leon Sandler, who works at the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. Sandler explains how the centre was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in order to support the commercialization of technology developed at the university. He talks about the types of innovation it nurtures and the different forms of support that it can provide. “What we’re doing here at MIT is really taking science from the lab and trying to build those enabling technologies that the Amazons, the Microsofts, the Apples and the Googles will actually use later,” he says.
Sandler explains that it is essential for spin-offs to possess a range of skills and knowledge. “You generally want more than one person. Someone who understands business, who understands finance, who understands marketing. A technical person who not only understands what the technology can do, but really has the engineering skills to build something, to produce it. And the fundamental thing in a company is that you need good people and leadership,” he says.
You can find out more the process of commercializing research in the field of materials science via the TMR+ blog. It is published by IOP Publishing, which also publishes Physics World.