Ling Zang, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Utah, had an idea to make public transit safer. After 9/11, it was clear that airports needed tools to identify the explosive chemicals in bombs. So, Zang developed Vaporsens, a company with a chemical sensor with nanofiber material that can detect airborne chemicals.
“It basically tries to replace a dog’s nose,” Zang said. There was a clear need for this product, but Zang didn’t have the critical business experience to get the product to market. That’s where the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute came in. Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the institute, met with Zang to mentor him how to set up a company, recruit the board of directors, and build up the team.
Zang had help from a team of graduate students through the Lassonde New Venture Development Center – Vimal Swarup, a Ph.D student at the time, and Ryan Brown, and Andrew Imbeau, who were MBA students. The student conducted a market analysis for Vaporsens, which helped Zang identify that there wasn’t just a market for Vaporsens in airports. This technology could also help identify illegal drugs, toxic chemicals, and more.
When Vaporsens was starting, Swarup was studying material science for his Ph.D. at the University of Utah. While the business students helped with strategy, Swarup translated all the technological concepts for the students. The three students eventually created a business plan and slide deck for Vaporsens.
“For me coming from a science background, that was strong view into how you develop business plans,” Swarup said. Today, Swarup is getting his MBA from Wharton while working as a global product specialist at W.L Gore & Associates. Before that, he started his career at Navigen, a pharmaceutical discovery and development company.
Vaporsens launched in 2011, and it quickly went from Zang’s idea to a company with 28 employees. These employees included electrical engineers to help develop the device itself, mechanical engineers to improve its performance, and data analysts to train the device to identify all kinds of dangerous chemicals.
“The growing experience could be painful, but the journey is really enjoyable,” said Zang. He explained that the most valuable part of helping develop Vaporsens was the diverse group of people involved.
A few years after Vaporsens launched, the National Science Foundation offered Vaporsens funding and a sponsorship for a booth at CES. Organized by the Consumer Technology Association, CES is one of the largest technology conferences in the country, where the world’s largest companies introduce new products.
During the conference, Gentex stopped by the booth. Gentex is a publicly-traded company based in Michigan specializing in dimmable windows, digital vision, fire protection, and more. Gentex was interested in collaborating with Vaporsens, as its sensors align with Gentex’s existing technologies. Gentex later flew out to Salt Lake to visit the company to learn more. Soon, Gentex offered to acquire Vaporsens, and the board accepted the offer in April 2020.
“My baby grew up and got married,” Zang said.
The acquisition was an ideal outcome. Zang explained that startups have to overcome challenges such as supply chain, marketing, distribution, and R&D. All of these challenges are costly and take time. Yet, Zang knew that Vaporsens is a product that could save lives, so he wanted to see it in the market as soon as possible. After Gentex acquired Vaporsens, the team had access to Gentex’s resources, enabling them to move much faster. In addition, Gentex wanted a presence in Salt Lake, so Vaporsens is still located in Research Park, and many of the original employees still work there.
Vaporsens is a great example of the strength of the Lassonde New Venture Development program. Zang had an idea, and the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute paired him with students with business and engineering experience. Zang gained the insights he needed to start the company, and the students gained experience that continues to benefit them today.
Learn more about Vaporsens at vaporsens.com.