The article “Risky business: A study of physics entrepreneurship,” by Orv Butler and Joe Anderson (Physics Today, December 2012, page 39), provides a good description of how scientists produce new products for the US marketplace. But the risk involved, combined usually with the need to abandon previous research directions, has limited the appeal of entrepreneurship as an alternative career path.

An interesting subset of entrepreneurial firms have overcome those two challenges: In them, physicists continue to develop their pure research interests and also are able to mitigate the risk of entrepreneurship while still producing commercially successful products. Such firms are more likely to stir the imagination of young physics graduates.

A prominent example is American Science and Engineering, founded in 1958 by several MIT physicists, including Bruno Rossi. Pioneering work in x-ray astrophysics carried out at AS&E in the 1960s and 1970s earned the group’s leader, Riccardo Giacconi, a share of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics. In parallel with that research, AS&E developed the first x-ray baggage scanners and became a publicly traded company with international sales of more than $200 million in a wide range of x-ray detection equipment.

Another example is Cambridge Research and Instrumentation, which I and three colleagues founded in 1985. At CRI, scientists were able to pursue several topics in solar plasma physics and luminosity variation, which led to more than 50 refereed papers, including cover articles in Nature, Science, and Scientific American. At the same time, the company developed several lines of commercial products, such as cryogenic radiometers for metrology and liquid-crystal scanning filters for biomedical imaging. The firm was recently acquired by PerkinElmer.

In the cases of AS&E, CRI, and other, similarly successful firms, pure research was encouraged. It attracted first-rate scientists whose expertise and connections sometimes strengthened the commercial products. Also, research funding from NASA, NSF, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the departments of Defense and Energy helped to cover overhead and mitigate risk. Federal funding available to entrepreneurs extends beyond the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer sources that Butler and Anderson discuss. Private firms can compete successfully in the same grant programs that are open to universities and government labs, with the only provision being that NSF grantees may not charge a fee for performing the proposed work.

A startup that encourages research in fields unrelated to commercial products and that seeks to provide steady employment for its scientists is usually not attractive to venture capitalists or angel investors. However, it can offer a career path at least as rewarding as one at a university or government laboratory and no more risky. Entrepreneurship takes time away from research, but then so do teaching and administrative duties at academic or government institutions.

The high national failure rate that Butler and Anderson report for startups may be accurate for purely commercial enterprises. But none of the research/commercial entrepreneurships familiar to me has failed. None has turned into a Google or Apple to please venture capitalists, but all have done well for their physicist founders. They offer a career path that deserves a closer look by physicists and by the American Institute of Physics.