APS Awards First Industrial Physics Prize to Philip J. Wyatt
Established in 2007, the APS prize complements the American Institute of Physics’ biennial Prize for Industrial Applications of Physics, first established in 1977. The APS prize is awarded in alternate years to an individual, or individuals, for applications of physics in an industrial setting. The purpose of the prize is to recognize excellence in the industrial application of physics, and thereby to publicize the value of physics in industry, to encourage physics research in industry, and to enhance students’ awareness of and interest in the role of physics in commercial product development. Both prizes are supported by a grant from the General Motors Corporation.
Wyatt earned his PhD from Florida State University; his thesis research focused on the development of a non‑local nuclear model capable of describing scattering of neutrons by nuclei. It was his first exposure to the classical inverse scattering problem, in which one studies the manner by which radiation scatters from an object to deduce the nature of the interaction, and, by extension, the physical properties of the object itself.
Early on in his professional career, Wyatt developed several instruments to explore the inverse scattering problem, and decided to found his own company to market laser‑based light scattering and related instrumentation. Today, Wyatt Technology Corporation is 27 years old, and its instruments are sold in over 50 countries and are used in virtually all universities, major biotech and pharmaceutical firms.
But the road to entrepreneurial success in industrial physics was far from smooth. The first company Wyatt founded failed. He attributes the failure to bad timing: at the time, “nobody believed our laser light scattering techniques were going to literally revolutionize analytical chemistry.” By the time Wyatt founded WTC, laser technology had become much more commonplace, and market trends had shifted in his favor– his product had become a “pull” technology.
He also benefited from a lucky break. A light‑hearted experiment using his instruments to monitor the quality of cola drinks became a cover story in Applied Optics. Coca‑Cola took notice, and decided to invest in Wyatt’s work–in part, he admits, to protect their secret formula. The company has since grown dramatically. His hard‑won advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Get into a market that is just on the verge of developing. If you’re too early, the company fails. If you’re a little too late, the competitors will eat you alive because they have much better resources.”
Among other applications, Wyatt's instruments are used to monitor the evolution of individual smog particles and the effects of fly ash, as well as detecting drug and pesticide residues in meats. He also developed instruments and methods to select the most effective antibiotics for combating bacterial infections in chemotherapy patients, and others to monitor AZT (a highly toxic drug) levels in AIDS patients, as well as monitoring the toxicity of antineoplastic drugs.
Combating bioterrorism is another application area. For instance, drinking water supplies could be vulnerable, so Wyatt developed instrumentation capable of determining within an hour whether any carcinogens or metabolic poisons are present in a given sample. Other instruments were developed to monitor and analyze airborne bacteria.
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Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan