A professor with a company and the idea of commercial success with something they developed is very common, in everything from biotechnology to software. But the 'Valley of Death' between the lab and a company is daunting.
In Physics World, James Dacey
notes that the challenges facing all start-up companies as they move from prototype to product are somewhat harder for physicists because of two factors: physics-based inventions are usually far less market-ready than academics think and the corporate world is more complicated.
This can be compounded by overly optimistic academics, who ultimately find that the added work that a company requires is not compatible with their school jobs, subsequently resulting in a project falling flat. Yet for those who are willing to fully commit to the project, as well as recruit the relevant expertise around them, the rewards can be plentiful. In that regard, they are not penalized any more than anyone else who starts a business; most will fail but failing for the right reasons is still a victory.
Dacey highlights one success; MC10, which got corporate minds involved early on and successfully bypassed the "valley of death" and entered products into a number of different markets. MC10's most high-profile product is the Reebok CHECKLIGHT – a type of skull cap that can be worn in contact sports to provide feedback on the severity of blows to the head.
Everyone thinks their idea is good and that venture capitalists will line up to throw funding at them but that is rarely true - they do not take an academic as seriously as they take an entrepreneur with two mortgages and a lot of credit cards tied up in a company. Crowdfunding can be the great equalizer, except most of those fail too. It not only must be an interesting idea, most people expect a deliverable.
In an accompanying,
highlights a number of instances where the general public have supported unusual and interesting physics-based projects by donating small or large amounts of cash, through various crowdfunding websites (some science-specific), in return for some sort of reward, such as gifts or shares in the company or sometimes just updates on the project. One such success story is that of Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal comic, who triumphantly raised $1.3m in 2012 through the crowdfunding website Indiegogo so that he could fund a museum in New York state to commemorate the life of Nikola Tesla.
However, it remains to be seen whether crowdfunding websites, which aren't without their faults, can really take off in the field of physics.
"The phenomenon has been lauded by many as a prime example of the benefits of the Internet," Cartwright writes. "Yet some scientists have suggested that, as far as crowdfunding scientific research and development goes, potential donors are poorly equipped to judge the merits of scientific projects and innovations, or to avoid scams."
"These detractors admit that crowdfunding may offer a solution for financing projects that have slipped through the net of traditional funding mechanisms – but, they say, it could also become a problem in itself."