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Physics World tackles the valley of death

By James Dacey

Many academics believe that they have an idea in them that could lead to a nifty new technology – and make them some cash in the process. But there is a world of difference between discussing an idea in the departmental common room and actually launching a new product to fit into an unexploited niche in the market. One of the biggest challenges that start-up companies face is known as the valley of death, which we have illustrated for you here with this quirky animation.


The voice you hear is that of Stan Reiss, who works for the international venture capitalist firm Matrix Partners. He explains how the valley of death is a metaphor for the financial challenges faced by a spin-off company in the early stages of its development. In this phase, the firm may have a prototype for a product but it might not have the income or the capital to comfortably survive and grow. Often, the company simply runs out of money and falls by the wayside. “There’s a lot of dead bones and skeletons at the end of that valley,” says Reiss.

This video is part of a series we produced following a recent visit to the Boston area of the US, which is a hotbed of academic spin-offs thanks to a glut of world-leading universities and numerous sources of investment. We published a video profile of a company called MC10, which is developing flexible-electronics products that can conform to clothing and skin. We also featured the lab of Joanna Aizenberg at Harvard University, which is creating new materials inspired by biological materials and processes.

We also published a couple of video interviews with professionals involved in the financial aspects of developing spin-off companies. There is an in-depth interview with Stan Reiss, who explains what venture capitalists do on a day-to-day basis. Reiss also discusses the types of thing he is looking for when deciding whether to invest in a science-based spin-off. Then there is an interview with 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 the centre nurtures and the different forms of support that it can provide.

If these videos have piqued your interest in the art of commercializing physics, then there will be plenty more for you to feast upon in the near future. In November we will be publishing a special issue of Physics World exploring the different themes involved in the process of taking physics research from the lab to the marketplace. You can also find out more about how research is commercialized, specifically in the materials-science field, via the TMR+ blog. It is published by IOP Publishing, which also publishes Physics World.

You never know, once you have ingested all these great stories, you may feel sufficiently nourished to have a go at tackling the dreaded valley of death yourself. If you do, then good luck with your journey. Just don’t forget to pack the November issue of Physics World!

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