Former Professor and Department of Materials Science and Engineering Head Dr. James “Jim” Economy has been a catalyst to entrepreneurial activity at the UI since 1989. The longtime industry professional has instructed many students in his research group, and more recently has formed businesses with UI students to commercialize the use of the materials he has discovered.
Illinois Launch teams Serionix and Silver Screen are two such companies. Economy has worked with Materials Science and Engineering Ph.D. candidates Jim Langer and Weihua Zheng to develop a revolutionary technology that improves the efficacy and sustainability of water and air purification process; the three are commercializing this technology under the title Serionix.
Materials Science and Engineering Ph.D. Zeba Parkar and her husband Nihal, a UIC Chemical Engineering alumnus are now working with Economy to commercialize a material that he discovered 10-12 years ago. This material, Economy explained, helps to remove bacteria from milk, thus greatly reducing the need for pasteurization. The Silver Screen team, which markets the polymer under the name “Milk Shield,” is currently pursuing distribution of its product in India.
From 1960-75, Economy was the manager of materials science and chemistry of the Research Branch in the Research and Development Division of the Carborundum Company; from 1975-89, he served as the manager of the Polymer Science and Technology Department in the Research Division of IBM.
“My work at the Carborundum company was more about generating new materials for external use,” Economy explained. “While at IBM, I set up a program that grew to 60 people to develop new materials for use in the IBM products. That was research that was directed more internally at the betterment of the company.”
Economy speculated that the experience he has had in developing and synthesizing new materials has greatly benefitted the Launch teams he assists.
“For Serionix, it is also the fact that I understand new areas of application – not just air and water purification, but improved plastics, et cetera – that has been a benefit,” Economy said.
“My role is pretty much as a mentor.”
Economy also knows the inner workings of the University administration and community, which makes him a particularly sage advisor.
“I think that one thing I find very troublesome is the tendency for the University – most Universities, not just ours – to try to control the emerging technologies, and to say that it belongs to them,” Economy said. “I think that acts as a tremendous barrier to the inventor in pursuing his discoveries. But now there seems to be some changing in this model.”
When Economy retired from the UI in February 2011, he found more freedom to set up companies like Silver Screen and Serionix, he explained.
Economy said that he is a fan of the University-independent facilities at EnterpriseWorks and of the Illinois Launch program.
“I think that young students are supported well [through Illinois Launch],” he said. “Zeba [Parkar] started up a business with Illinois Launch and the program provided her with advice on patenting and other things, and also with money to pursue her business venture. That is great.”
In general, Economy explained, he encouraged all of the students in his research group to apply for the Illinois Launch program.
“I did that because I saw the potential for providing support to get these programs off the ground, and to do it independently of the University,” he said.
And his companies have seen success so far; Serionix recently received an NCIIA E-Team grant for $20,000 and an Army SBIR Phase 1 grant. Silver Screen is currently looking into expanding into the marketplace of India. As well, ATSP Innovations – another company Economy co-founded – is currently executing a NSF SBIR Phase 1 grant related to low-wear coatings.
To learn more about Dr. Economy and his research group, check out the group’s website at http://economy.matse.illinois.edu/.