University startup gains major investment after discovering chemical sensors

Mariane Gutierrez

An accidental scientific discovery led to a multimillion dollar investment for a University startup.

Lantha Sensors, a chemical company started by associate chemistry professor Simon Humphrey, was developed when his research group discovered lanthanide, a chemical that senses other chemical concentrations based on the colors metallic elements emit when exposed to water, Humphrey said. The GOOSE Society of Texas, an investment group, and other University affiliates are investing $2.6 million into the company because of the discovery.

Humphrey said the research group discovered the chemical by accident when conducting routine measurements, and they noticed the chemical could sense different types of water.

“We discovered the material about four to five years ago, and we didn’t really fully understand its capability until later,” Humphrey said. “We didn’t realize … we were sitting on probably the most valuable material we made from this whole project.”

 



Humphrey said the chemical works when absorbents, such as water, go inside the material and interact with it. This changes the electronic structure that is then reflected as a specific color.

“It’s a little bit like Lego-using molecules … we fix them together in this honeycomb arrangement, … and (they) start to emit visible color,” Humphrey said.

Jeff Smisek, a part of the board of directors for GOOSE Society, said to secure funds for the ongoing research and creation of the product, the GOOSE Society invested a large portion of the $2.6 million. Smisek said the group invested in the startup because it is providing easier access to the chemical industry.

“The technology is unique and exciting,” Smisek said. “It’s easy to use, fast, highly accurate, very scalable (and) doesn’t require an enormous amount of cap to get the company up and running, and we have a lot of faith and believe (the company) will do very good.”

Sam Dunning, company technology development vice president, said he was working on his chemistry Ph.D. at the University when the sensor was first discovered and has since moved on to work for the startup.

“You never go into a research project expecting it to spin out into a company,” Dunning said. “When I had to switch from lab work to meeting with potential investors, it was quite a change of pace. It’s immensely gratifying to see your research have real-world impact.”

Humphrey said Lantha Sensors Incorporated is planning a second version of the product, while the first version will be released in 2020.