We live in an age obsessed with cleanliness. Hand washing is at an all-time high, as are sanitizers of every sort. It's not enough that our municiple water is filtered at a plant somewhere before coming into our homes, no, we need to filter it once more before it's safe to drink. Yet even that level of screening for contaminants may not be enough. For people living near air force bases there's an additional threat, and it's caused by a specific chemical used in rocket fuel: ammonium perchlorate. Perchlorate has a tendency to end up in the water supply near these bases, and traditional water filters don't do the trick when it comes to screening out the toxin. Fortunately, two entrepreneurial materials science researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have come up with a novel filtering material that does screen perchlorate, and they are well on their way to commercializing their invention, thanks to two federal small business awards and the support of the pro-business University of Illinois Research Park.
[Langer in a photo by Vanda Bidwell/The News Gazette]
The new company is called Serionix, and it's the brainchild of UIUC PhD candidates Jim Langer and Weihua Zheng, with the guidance of their advisor and business partner, emeritus professor James Economy. The material utilizes ion-exchange fiber composites and can be produced inexpensively. The inventors' NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award application, which was successful in securing $150K for the nascent company, describes the science behind the project this way:
The proposed technology removes perchlorate 10-100 times faster than the best currently available options, and employs a low-cost production method compatible with widely available manufacturing equipment. Rapid contaminant removal is made possible by the use of micron-scale mass transfer distances... Fiber composites display both high permeability and self-containment due to their permanently intertwined, self-supporting structure.
The Department of Defense has also granted the Serionix team a start-up award of $100K. Its interest in the material is as a shield against biowarfare attacks on facilities. They think perhaps the Serionix material could be used not only for water filtration, but on HVAC units for purifying air as well.
Langer admits that bringing their invention into the real business world has required developing new, non-scientific skillsets and making use of business resources available through the Research Park, like bringing the advisory firm Serra Ventures on-board to come up with corporate strategies. One strategic direction would be to license the new technology to an existing company in the filtration business, like Clorox (Brita) or P-G (PUR). Adding fuel to the young company's commercial viability is an upcoming EPA ruling on perchlorate in water, which could make Serionix' product an important regulatory compliance tool. What does Langer think of becoming a businessman instead of, say, a professor or full-time researcher? He's all for it, crediting the community of entrepreneurs at UIUC for making him feel right at home.
The Research Park at the University of Illinois will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a celebration on Thursday. Since its opening, the park has grown to include 12 buildings housing more than 90 companies. The EnterpriseWorks business incubator has seen 127 startups emerge from its walls, plus another 75 that found space in other Research Park buildings. The park's plan for future growth shows extensive new facilities construction on the horizon.
If you are a UIUC researcher or laboratory supplier, and would like to boost awareness of your products and increase scientific sales, plan on attending Biotechnology Calendar, Inc.'s Urbana-Champaign BioResearch Product Faire event held on the UIUC campus next on May 9, 2012. Click below for a funding report and more show information:
Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. is a full-service event marketing and planning company producing on-campus life science research tradeshows nationwide for going on 19 years. We plan and promote each event to bring the best products and services to the best research campuses across the country. Life science researchers, purchasing agents, and lab managers are actively invited to attend to see the latest products and equipment and discuss their laboratory tool and service needs. See our nationwide show schedule for 2012.