The manipulation of fluids in channels with dimensions of tens of micrometres — microfluidics — has emerged as a distinct new field. Microfluidics has the potential to influence subject areas from chemical synthesis and biological analysis to optics and information technology. But the field is still at an early stage of development. Even as the basic science and technological demonstrations develop, other problems must be addressed: choosing and focusing on initial applications, and developing strategies to complete the cycle of development, including commercialization. The solutions to these problems will require imagination and ingenuity.