The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many EnterpriseWorks startups and graduates to pivot their businesses. The Entrepreneurs Brown Bag Series kicked off on June 17, 2020, with a panel that consisted of Serionix, EarthSense, and AirScout. Attendees heard about how these three companies have adapted in the wake of COVID-19 despite challenges they have faced in funding, collaborating, and manufacturing.
Dr. James Langer, a University of Illinois Materials Science and Engineering alum, co-founded Serionix in 2011. Serionix is an EnterpriseWorks graduate that continued its operations in Urbana, Illinois. The company’s award-winning air filtration technology has received support from the Army, the National Science Foundation, and NASA in excess of $3 million. In mid-May, Serionix announced that the company could potentially combat the face mask shortage with their proprietary, lightweight Colorfil coating that is currently being used in NASA spaceships and space suits.
Langer said that demand for Serionix filters skyrocketed as people began to exhibit hoarding behavior. As a result of the increased demand, Serionix had to quickly prepare itself for the growth in operations. The company has an external supply chain, and fulfillment occurs in the Urbana facility. “When the stay-at-home order hit, it was crazy because we had to navigate what that meant for us,” Langer said. “We deemed our work essential because our product is a health and wellness product, and we operated as a skeleton group.”
In response to how Serionix stepped into face mask prototyping, Langer said that the company had already identified face masks prior the pandemic as a way to apply their technology in a different way. “Our core value proposition was that it changes color to let you know it’s working and when it’s expired. We had it tested against virus and bacteria, and we knew our product was effective against those. We had to take face masks off the back burner and put it in the forefront…. We realized, ‘We have something that can make a difference here.'”
Michael Hansen is the Design Lead at EarthSense, a current EnterpriseWorks tenant that has created TerraSentia in order to improve the quantity, accuracy, cost, and speed of in-field plant trait data collection. Langer completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Industrial Design from the College of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. EarthSense received a Phase II SBIR award from the National Science Foundation in April 2020, was selected by the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator to join its seventh cohort in May 2020, and received accelerated funding from the National Science Foundation to transform TerraSentia into an autonomous sanitizing robot in June 2020.
The latter was in direct response to COVID-19; EarthSense is working on a robotic arm with a UV light to sanitize surfaces. Hansen explained that the company had already been developing this technology prior COVID-19, but the team found it difficult to manipulate the arm correctly. This mechanical challenge did not deter EarthSense, however. Collaboration between Kris Hauser, Director of the Intelligent Motion Laboratory, and the co-founders led to the production of a usable UV light and improved navigation. Hansen said the company felt the need to do something and that EarthSense is lucky to have a team that can “design a whole robot and ship within a 9 month period. We’re building prototypes already.” Despite the fact that EarthSense “got hit right when we were ramping up for the spring season,” Hansen emphasized that the team was well-equipped because they already had “computer engineers who would work from midnight to 6am, so our workforce wasn’t completely impacted.”
Robert Coverdill is the Chief Operating Officer of AirScout and the founder and President of Ag Air Imaging, LLC. He is a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign two-time alum with an undergraduate and graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Grainger College of Engineering. He also was the Director of the National Science Olympiad Partnership and Director of Engineering and Technical Services in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering for 24 years. Coverdill’s University of Illinois experience in study and in leadership has helped him to successfully lead AirScout as it focuses on improving field scouting for farmers and agronomists. AirScout Thermal Imagery helps people understand crop health weeks before before crop yields are significantly threatened.
This EnterpriseWorks-based startup is aiming to expand the use of thermal imaging technology by advocating for the implementation of advanced thermal cameras in businesses and other high-traffic buildings so that people’s body temperature can be monitored. “The same thermal camera we use in the airplane can be modeled on a small stand. You can stand in front of it, and in a second you’ll know what your temperature is… You can set it in the entrance of your business and read the temperature of whoever walks in,” Coverdill said. He noted that temperature is an indicator and a type of filter that could be especially important as businesses, universities, and other places reopen. Coverdill said, “Especially in this environment where there are young people working, it could help us promote healthier work environments,” and although he was not expecting AirScout to pivot in this direction in February, he is hopeful about what thermal imaging can do to assist public health efforts. He intends to reach out to Champaign-Urbana businesses to determine interest and viability.
To hear more about how these companies have changed their businesses in response to COVID-19, including how they found funding for their new ventures and how they were initially impacted, watch the video on the Research Park YouTube channel.
Learn more about the Research Park’s COVID-19 Resources on our Resources page.