Serionix Wins Cozad Competition

Story courtesy of News Gazette’s Don Dodson.

CHAMPAIGN — Serionix took the top monetary prize at the Cozad New Venture Competition this past weekend.

The company — which has come up with filter materials to remove perchlorate from drinking water — took first place in the Most Fundable Venture category, earning the firm $15,000.

Jim Langer, the firm’s president, said he hopes to use the winnings for intellectual property development, such as filing patent applications, or business development, such as meeting with customers on the West Coast.

Langer said Serionix started a year ago as a result of taking part in the 2011 Cozad competition. But last year, the firm didn’t make the finals.

“That served as motivation for us to work hard, and the results this year indicate it paid off,” he said.

Before taking part in last year’s competition, “we had no clear direction of what we really wanted to do, but as a result of the competition, and exposure to and connection with mentors, we were able to craft pieces for what ultimately became the company,” he said. “Cozad was the spark that set it off.”

Serionix recently won the Student Startup Award at Champaign County’s Innovation Celebration and was a finalist for the Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize.

Photo By: The News Gazette
Jim Langer, left, and Weihua Zheng of Serionix, which has developed ion-exchange fiber composite materials to help remove perchlorate from drinking water.

Other monetary winners at this year’s Cozad competition included:

— GlucoSentient, which won a $10,000 prize as the Burrill Best Digital Healthcare Application. GlucoSentient aims to improve the lives of patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who take theophylline. It proposes home monitoring through use of a blood glucose meter.

— Transplants Without Donors, which won a $7,500 prize as Best Social Venture. That team invented a life-saving therapy based on the creation of artificial organs from the patients’ stem cells and biomaterials.

— HigherMed, which won a $5,000 prize for second place in the Most Fundable Venture category. That team plans to develop and market an easier-to-use prescription pill bottle cap, primarily for people with decreased dexterity.

— Oso Simple Technologies and Prawg each won a $2,500 prize for Best Mobile Application. Oso Simple aims to reduce the water used on lawns and gardens, while Prawg focuses on real-time interaction between TV shows and their audiences. Prawg also won a $1,000 prize for Most Patentable Idea/Venture.

— StudyCloud won a $2,000 prize for third place in the Most Fundable Venture category. StudyCloud is an online collaboration platform poised at integrating social web technology with online education.

Twenty teams took part in the competition’s semifinals, and nine advanced to Saturday’s finals, held at the UI’s Business Instructional Facility.

The finalists were: Easy Go Dispenser, EscaWheel, GlucoSentient, HigherMed, OceanComm, Serionix, StudyCloud, Transplants Without Donors and uZee.

The annual competition is named for V. Dale Cozad, founder of Cozad Asset Management. The program was established through an endowment from Peter and Kim Fox and is administered through the UI’s Technology Entrepreneur Center.

UI Researchers Develop Effective, Less Costly Way to Remove Contaminants

Story courtesy of the News Gazette’s Don Dodson.

CHAMPAIGN — Jim Langer and Weihua Zheng have come up with a relatively inexpensive — but effective — way to remove perchlorate from water.

Perchlorate is a rocket-fuel component that has found its way into water sources, sometimes near air force bases. Exposure to it can affect the thyroid gland.

But by using “clever chemistry,” Langer and Zheng have been able to develop a filter material that can remove the contaminant from water.

The filter can be used on a faucet or in a pitcher, and the researchers see commercial potential for it.

They’ve started a company, Serionix, in the University of Illinois Research Park with their adviser,  James Economy, a UI professor emeritus of materials science and engineering.

Photo by: Vanda Bidwell/The News Gazette
Jim Langer of Serionix pours water through filter material designed to remove the rocket-fuel component perchlorate

Already, the company has received two Small Business Innovation Research grants — $150,000 from the National Science Foundation and $100,000 from the Department of Defense.

The NSF grant will be used to commercialize the technology for removal of perchlorate and possibly other contaminants from water.

The Defense Department grant will be used to develop ways of protecting facilities from chemical warfare — possibly by using the filter material in heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems.

Langer, 32, of Urbana said the filter is made possible by composite materials known as “ion-exchange fiber composites.”

The technology involves coating tiny fibers with resin and activating the material by chemical or temperature means.

That gives the material the functionality of ion exchange. In water softeners, ion exchange is used to remove calcium and magnesium from water.

In Serionix filters, ion exchange is used to convert perchlorate to chloride.

The technology has won Serionix recognition on several levels. In February, the company won the Student Startup Award at Champaign County’s Innovation Celebration.

Last week, Langer was one of five UI finalists for the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize, given for creative solutions to real-world problems.

Langer said Serionix is working with Champaign-based Serra Ventures to develop corporate strategies.

He figures Serionix may work with corporate partners to manufacture materials for Serionix — or the firm may license the technology so interested companies can integrate it into their products.

Among the best-known filtration products on the market today are Procter & Gamble’s PUR water filter and Clorox Co.’s Brita water filter.

“There are probably 10 or 15 more companies in that space,” Langer said.

Serionix’s material could “add functionality and marketability” to those kinds of products, he added.

In February 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would develop regulations for perchlorate in drinking water.

Just what the regulations will be isn’t clear yet. But Langer said that in developing regulations for arsenic in water, the EPA allowed small municipalities to treat water in the home, rather than centrally.

If the EPA were to take the same approach for perchlorate, Serionix’s filter could become an important “regulatory compliance tool,” he said.

Langer is the president and CEO of Serionix.

Originally from the Minneapolis area, he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., in 2002. He then worked four years as an analytical chemist for CIMA Labs before joining the doctoral program at the UI.

Co-founder Weihua Zheng, 26, of Savoy is originally from China’s Hebei province. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Zhejiang University in China in 2007. After working a year at an ion-exchange plant in China, he came to the UI in 2008.

Both credit Economy with helping them start Serionix.

“For a long time, he’s encouraged us to have an entrepreneurial mind-set,” whether in collaborating with other groups on campus or approaching companies to see what interest they may have in research, Langer said.

The latter half of the Serionix name is loosely derived from “ion exchange,” Langer said. As for the origin of the first half, “we liked how it sounded.”

Both Langer and Zheng said they plan to devote full time to Serionix after they complete their degrees.

“Definitely, I want to see this through with the company,” Langer said. “I could see myself being a professor 10 to 20 years from now, but I feel connected with the entrepreneur community here.”

Scroll Up