Your collection of articles on microscopy (Nature 459, 629–639; 2009) rightly celebrates the success of innovators in the field. Unfortunately, the supply of new technologies is being threatened by commercial concerns.

Microscope manufacturers are obliged by world competition to specialize in a few high-end products only. Even though these products are hugely expensive, their total sales volume is now so small that the profits do not support the research and development of new microscopes. High prices call for purchase by a group, so the specification list expands and the cost spirals up.

Companies are wary of producing a low-cost microscope, such as SPIM (selective plane illumination, ideal for low-bleach imaging of embryos) for fear of losing their high-end sales. Several other new technologies, including CARS (coherent anti-Stokes Raman scattering microscopy, which provides chemical information similar to that given by infrared spectroscopy) and PALM (photoactivated localization microscopy, which brings the resolution down to a few nanometres), are not yet available commercially. Another method of super-resolution is being produced (STED, or stimulated emission depletion microscopy), but is not working as well as it does in the hands of the inventor.

Sadly, there are now several examples of inventions that might have been beneficial to science and medicine being suppressed by companies for marketing reasons — including one of my own design, an attractive and inexpensive confocal system.

Given that the normal route of exploitation is grinding to a halt, perhaps inventors could be funded directly to clone their inventions. There should be a pre-commercial phase of development by the public sector. It would also help to set up, where it does not exist already, an institute with the capability (optics, software, electronics experts and biologists) to develop these elaborate new microscopes. It is too much for any individual university or biomedical lab.