Big ventures often start small—as nothing more than someone acting on a whim.
That was the case for Jim Langer and Weihua Zheng in 2011. Langer said he and Zheng, who as graduate students worked in the same research group developing high performance filtration materials, “decided on a whim” to enter the Technology Entrepreneur Center’s Cozad New Venture Competition.
The team just missed the cutoff for advancing to the finals with their innovative materials for removing contaminants from water.
“We were naïve, but it was still a rewarding experience that got us excited about the possibility of starting a company,” Langer said. Their research advisor, James Economy, also championed their entrepreneurial ambitions, eventually becoming a co-founder for the startup they later named Serionix.
Armed with feedback from the Cozad judges, Langer and Zheng pushed forward, hiring student interns from multiple University departments to launch a customer development process, which identified industrial air purification as their key market. They also enlisted numerous Research Park resources and mentors, like Dave Kellner of EnterpriseWorks’ SBIR Technical Assistance Program, who helped with grant proposals—a process that Langer said further “helped refine our story and our goals.”
“You have to be able to tell a compelling story about what you’re doing and why, to get other people like partners and investors to come along with you,” said Langer.
The work with Kellner paid off, bringing in $1.8M through two SBIR grants—one with the Army and another with National Science Foundation. In the spring of 2012, Serionix moved into EnterpriseWorks offices with Langer as its president and CEO.
Being a part of the business incubator brought additional benefits, like acceptance into a program called I-Start, which helps with some basic costs and logistics involved in starting a business. Other consulting and fundraising advice came from Research Park tenants Tim Hoerr and Dennis Beard of Serra Ventures.
“They were really instrumental in encouraging us along the way, and helping us see that we had something worth pursuing,” Langer said, noting that the encouragement and assistance were critical: At that time in his life Langer, a new father, had a thesis to write, two SBIRs to start, and the 2012 Cozad New Venture Competition to prepare for.
“We still had a long ways to go to develop the best product for the market, but we had met all the goals we had for that year,” Langer said. The Cozad judges were clearly impressed—they gave Langer and Zheng that year’s Grand Prize.
“It wouldn’t have been possible to start a business without a place like [EnterpriseWorks]. We really take advantage of the shared services here—it’s a cumulative effect of network opportunities, speakers and seminars to help us learn best practices.”
Today, Serionix is focused on scaling up the manufacturing process and getting the product to customers. In addition to industrial air applications, Serionix is looking into other potential customer areas like hospitals and airports, and they’re talking to the government about systems that could protect entire buildings from chemical warfare attacks. “Ultimately, what we’re interested in doing is protecting human life,” Langer said.