By Alyssa Schoeneman
Serionix entered the job market with a good economy on its side – Dr. Economy, that is.
Illinois Materials Science and Engineering Professor Jim Economy “has always encouraged entrepreneurial activity amongst his students,” explained SERIONIX President and CEO Jim Langer. “His direction led to our focus on developing technologies with commercial potential.”
The Serionix team, which includes Langer, Dr. Economy and Materials Science and Engineering Ph.D. student Weihua Zheng, developed a revolutionary technology that substantially improves the efficacy and sustainability of water purification process.
With encouragement from two alumni in their research group – Launch participants Zeba Parkar and Gordon Nameni – the Serionix team members entered the Cozad New Venture Competition in April 2011.
“We entered into the Cozad New Venture Competition on a whim, and realized in the process of developing a business plan that the company had significant potential to be a viable entity,” Langer said.
Serionix incorporated directly after completing the competition.
“Since we made that decision, Amara Andrews [from Illinois Launch], Tim Hoerr from Serra Ventures, Dave Kellner from Andalyze http://andalyze.com/and Chris Mangun from CU Aerospace have all played significant roles in helping us gain commercial traction,” Langer said. “Serionix would probably not exist without Launch and the additional involvement of those mentioned.”
Langer said the most difficult part of running a startup company has been the necessity to understand “everything about how the business will run.” This broad category includes financing, intellectual property development and protection, business development, marketing, accounting and the like, he explained.
But at the end of the day, Langer enjoys his newfound autonomy the most.
“Having the opportunity to call the shots on a product development project is really fun,” he said. “I like learning how to do all those tasks labeled ‘difficult.’”
Langer said that he has learned just how much work goes into starting a new company and keeping it in operation.
“I am far more effective when I leverage the skills and knowledge of those around me,” he noted, advising aspiring entrepreneurs to “take a hard look at both your own skills and those of your teammates, and make sure to have a plan to fill in the gaps.”
Langer also stressed the importance of developing relationships with veteran entrepreneurs and other longtime industry professionals.
“Giving technology pitches with the rest of the Economy research group [has been a beneficial University resource],” Langer said. “It was also helpful to unintentionally build up a great network of potential contacts both within and outside the University; that has now proved very helpful with the company.”
The Serionix team is currently writing grant applications, while Langer wraps up his Ph.D.
“The federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program provides a great source for non-dilutive early-stage funding,” Langer explained. “During the next six months we expect to have proposals turned in to at least four different agencies.”
Here’s wishing them the best of luck.
Serionix was awarded an NCIIA E-Team grant for $20,000 in August 2011.
Zheng and Langer participated in the 5-day NCIIA VentureLab Green Living event that was held on the Illinois campus in April 2011.
“That 5-day intensive training entailed all kinds of exercises that made [the Serionix team] go through and figure out what the business was all about and what steps we could take to continue to build commercial momentum,” Serionix CEO Jim Langer explained. “It was there that we got very strong encouragement to go after the E-Team Grant.”
Because Langer and teammate Weihua Zheng are both engineers, they recruited MBA student Larry Rubeck to be a part of their E-Team for the grant proposal. Rubeck brings specific business-related skills such as market research and developing a stronger business plan.
“It is cool to have access to an MBA student in this case – it was initiated through Illinois Launch but it dovetails well with this E-Team grant,” Langer said. “Larry will be a good resource for us as we go forward with the E-Team grant and just in general.”
The Serionix team was awarded a Phase I Army SBIR grant in September 2011.
The Small Business Innovation Research program, Serionix CEO Jim Langer explained, is a federal program that is administered through all governmental agencies that have research budgets; each agency sets aside a small percentage of this budget to spend on small businesses. These governmental organizations solicit research grant applications from companies who may have solutions for their critical technology needs.
“We responded to an Army request for a system that would be able to provide chemical protection for Department of Defense personnel,” Langer said. “Especially with the Department of Defense, you put together a very specific work plan of what you are going to do, and then if you are awarded money, you have to execute your plan exactly.”
A Phase I reward ranges from $100-$150K over a six month timespan, Langer said. If a team successfully executes its Phase I plan, that company is then typically put into a pool of candidates for a Phase II grant. The reward for a Phase II grant ranges from $750 K - $1 million over two years.
Illinois Materials Science and Engineering alumnus Chris Mangun was of great assistance in preparing the Army SBIR grant proposal.
“Chris has a lot of experience with writing and winning grants, and his help played a huge role in us putting together a strong proposal,” Langer said. “Having worked with the same Ph.D. advisor (James Economy), he has an intimate understanding of the technology we are working with as well.”
At Illinois, collaboration is often a key ingredient of success.