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Tag archives: industry

Commercializing physics: how to translate ideas into business

By  Matin Durrani

Some physicists can get a bit grumpy if talk turns to the supposedly dirty business of commercialization. They go into physics out of curiosity alone and have an innate dislike of ever having to justify their resarch in terms of potential spin-off benefits. But they can be thankful for the overall health and vitality of physics that some brave souls do risk their money and careers by setting up businesses to commercialize their findings.

The November 2014 issue of Physics World magazine gives a taste of some of the challenges in commercializing physics, as I describe with my colleague Margaret Harris in the video above. We kick off with one common problem for hi-tech start-ups, which is how to bridge the “valley of death” – in other words, what to do when your research funding has dried up but you’re not yet making any money from your product. Jesko von Windheim then examines why physics-based firms have a harder job than ordinary businesses, where succeeding is simply about finding a market and meeting its need, before we look back at some promising technologies tackled in Physics World’s Innovation column to see how they’ve fared. There are also some real-life lessons from Floor van de Pavert — a physicist who’s been at the business coal face — and we see how crowdfunding websites can help researchers get their ideas off the ground.

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Connecting physics with Argentine industry

Photo of scientists in an optics lab

That’s me on the right visiting an optics lab at the University of Buenos Aires.

By James Dacey in Buenos Aires, Argentina

This week, physics PhD students and advanced undergraduates from across Argentina will flock to the University of Buenos Aires for the physics department’s winter school. It’s an annual event where budding researchers spend a few days at the nation’s premier academic institution to learn about some of the latest developments in fundamental research. The year, however, the meeting will be focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry.

I’ve been in Buenos Aires as part of a fact-finding mission to learn about the physics-education system in Argentina. After meeting with various people involved with Argentine physics education, it seems to me that the theme of this year’s winter school at the University of Buenos Aires is indicative of a change in the way physics is being presented to students. The subject is being rebranded from a purely intellectual pursuit into a practical science that can equip students with highly sought-after professional skills. The bigger picture, of course, is that right now the Argentine economy needs all the fresh ideas and workforce it can get!

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Physics World 2014 Focus on Vacuum Technology is out now

By Matin Durrani

Vacuum technology is big business these days, with companies in the sector producing advanced scientific equipment that is vital not only for academic research, but also for manufacturers in other industrial sectors.
Physics World 2014 Focus on vacuum technology
In fact, one giant of the vacuum industry – Swedish firm Atlas Copco – bought its UK rival Edwards Vacuum for an eye-watering $1.5bn last year.

If you want to find out more about why Atlas Copco forked out so much cash, don’t miss the latest Physics World focus issue on vacuum technology, which includes an interview with Geert Follens, president of Atlas Copco’s newly created vacuum-solutions division. In the interview, Follens discusses the takeover in more detail and explains why he expects further strong growth in the vacuum market.

Elsewhere in the issue, you can read about a European Union project uniting academia and industry to improve vacuum metrology for production environments. Such efforts are vital even in the drinks industry, where the Van Pur brewery in Poland, for example, uses equipment from KHS Plasmax to coat the inside of bottles with an ultrathin layer of glass using plasma impulse chemical vapour deposition under vacuum.

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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.

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Winning rock-paper-scissors, meeting a future Nobel laureate, hot new batteries and more

By Hamish Johnston

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries

Donald Sadoway wants us to think differently about batteries. (Courtesy: MIT/M Scott Brauer)

When I was a PhD student, there was a group of retired professors that shared a tiny office in the physics department. It was whispered that one of them was extremely wealthy thanks to a successful commercial spin-out and we marvelled at the fact that he came in to work every day rather than enjoying the fruits of his labours. However, it wasn’t the wealthy professor who was destined for international fame. In 1994 his officemate Bertram Brockhouse shared the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Brockhouse’s quiet life changed dramatically. Indeed, he got his own office!

I was reminded of this little group when I read ZapperZ’s blog entry about his encounter with Ray Davis before Davis bagged the 2002 Nobel for his work on neutrinos. Sitting next to Davis on a two-hour flight, ZapperZ had an inkling that he was beside an interesting character after their brief chat about physics. But it wasn’t until the Nobel was announced several years later that he realized the opportunity he had missed.

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Hi-tech giants eschew corporate R&D, says report

IBM's latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

IBM’s latest crop of research fellows: are big companies cutting back on fundamental research? (Courtesy: IBM)

By Hamish Johnston

“Think” has been motto of the US-based computer giant IBM since it was coined in the early 20th century by founder Thomas Watson. Many would argue that IBM has succeeded over the past 100 years because physicists and other scientists were given the freedom to think while working at the company’s research labs. And science has benefitted too, with three Nobel prizes won or shared by physicists working at the firm’s labs. Even more impressive is that a whopping seven physics Nobels have been awarded to physicists at Bell Labs – originally Bell Telephone Laboratories.

But the days of these corporate “idea factories” are over according to a new study published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Entitled Physics Entrepreneurship and Innovation (PDF), the 308-page report argues that many large businesses are closing in-house research facilities and instead buying in new expertise and technologies by acquiring hi-tech start-ups.

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Safe graphene, Martian mollycoddling, mathematical tales and more

The

The “Telescope names” comic from xkcd. (Randall Munroe/Creative Commons)

By Tushna Commissariat

Just when we thought that it couldn’t possibly have any more practical applications, everybody’s favourite “wonder material” graphene is going to be used to develop “stronger, safer, and more desirable condoms”. Thanks to a Grand Challenges Explorations grant of £62,123 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists at the University of Manchester will use graphene to develop new “composite nanomaterials for next-generation condoms, containing graphene”. Unsurprisingly, the story made all the national newspapers with the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent all having their say. The Guardian also noted that industrial graphene-producer Applied Graphene Materialsshares jumped by 40% during its stock-market debut, the day before the above story broke. You can read more about graphene’s many potential applications on page 50 of Physics World’s anniversary issue, a free PDF download of which is available here.

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Project Einstein, NASA shares its wealth, how the kettle got its whistle and more

This image of the Mona Lisa has been stabilized using technology developed by NASA to study solar flares (Courtesy: Marblar)

This image of the Mona Lisa has been stabilized using technology developed by NASA to study solar flares. (Courtesy: Marblar)

By Hamish Johnston

The best thing about science fiction is that it is fiction, and nit-picking about scientific accuracy shouldn’t get in the way of telling a good story. That’s the theme of Roger Highfield’s review of the latest blockbuster Gravity. Writing in his old paper The Daily Telegraph, Highfield – who now works at London’s Science Museum – takes exception to a series of Tweets by the celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about the film. Among other things, the Tweets complain that Sandra Bullock’s hair should be wafting around in zero gravity, not hanging down as it would on Earth. Despite these and other “scientific holes big enough to fly a Saturn V rocket through” both Highfield and Tyson agree that Gravity is a film well worth seeing. The review is called “Gravity: how real is the science?“.

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Institute of Physics celebrates commercial innovation

Bright ideas: the Insitute of Physics lauds five UK-based companies. (Courtesy: IOP)

Bright ideas: the Insitute of Physics lauds five UK-based companies.

By Hamish Johnston

The Institute of Physics (IOP) has bestowed its Innovation Award on five UK-based companies. The IOP, which publishes physicsworld.com, runs the annual award to “celebrate companies that make the most of physics”.

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New diamond centre cuts the ice

By Margaret Harris

An Element Six employee shows visitors some of the company's products

An employee shows visitors around Element Six’s new facility. Credit: Element Six

The Harwell Science and Innovation Campus added another jewel to its crown yesterday when the industrial-diamonds firm Element Six officially opened its £20m new R&D facility on the Oxfordshire site, which is already home to organizations such as the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the UK’s flagship synchrotron, the Diamond Light Source.

I’d heard about Element Six’s plans thanks to this article, which appeared in the careers section of June’s Physics World. The author, Stephanie Liggins, is a physicist who joined Element Six after completing her PhD at the University of Warwick, and towards the end of the article she mentioned that she would soon be moving to the company’s new Global Innovation Centre – which she described as “the world’s largest synthetic-diamond research and development facility”.

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