AIP Launches New Study of Physics Entrepreneurs

The Niels Bohr Library & Archives and the Center for History of Physics have begun field work on a new three-year study of the History of Physics Entrepreneurship (HoPE). In July of this year, project staff conducted interviews with physicists and other staff at nine physics startups in the Boston, Massachusetts area, and we will begin interviews on the West Coast soon.

Over the past two decades physics entrepreneurs have emerged as an important force in advancing innovation and bringing new technologies to the marketplace. One of the entrepreneurs whom we recently interviewed describes start-ups as the “new model” for industrial research, comparing them against the large companies that once dominated industrial R&D. This project, which is funded jointly by a grant from NSF and by AIP, is the first systematic study of physics entrepreneurship.

We believe that the HoPE study will break new ground in analyzing and documenting an important trend in how physicists work in the corporate sector. It follows up on our five-year study of the History of Physicists in Industry (see a summary of the project at, completed last year. One of the major findings of the earlier study was the extent to which major high-tech firms have come to depend on startups for innovative technology, either acquiring the companies or licensing their intellectual property.

During the study we will interview over 100 physics entrepreneurs and related staff at more than 30 companies in a variety of different fields. We will investigate historical trends as well as current developments by selecting start-ups from several different age cohorts. The companies will include representatives from five still-active enterprises that were founded before 1990 and fifteen companies that have started since 1990.

In addition we will interview physicists from five start-ups that have failed, and five start-ups that have been acquired by other companies. Our definition of physics startups consists of organizations founded or co-founded by a Ph.D. physicist that use knowledge or intellectual property about the physical world and skills in manipulating the physical world that creates commercial value in the marketplace.

Staff will analyze the interviews and other project data using NVivo, a qualitative software that we first employed in the History of Physicists in Industry study. Products of the study will include a detailed final report that will document and appraise the role of physics-based startups in the evolving economy of the information age and identify areas for further study.

We will create an Entrepreneurial Website containing biographies of the interviewees, their oral history transcripts with audio clips (with the permission of the interviewees), business plans, historical/sociological essays, photos, and the study’s final report. We will assess and document what records are being created that future historians and sociologists can use, as well as create new records (through interviews and other methods).

We are still selecting candidates to participate in the study, and welcome your suggestions and recommendations, along with questions about the study.


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