Next stop for UI-founded company: Space, thanks to NASA contract

Next stop for UI-founded company: Space, thanks to NASA contract

CHAMPAIGN — A company founded by a University of Illinois physics professor has raised more than $1.5 million in venture funding this year, graduated from the UI Research Park's EnterpriseWorks incubator and this week announced it was selected for a project by NASA.

At its new 12,000-square-foot facility on Kenyon Road near Interstate 74 in Champaign, Inprentus manufactures diffraction gratings, an advanced prism of sorts used in laboratories around the world.

The company was founded by Peter Abbamonte in 2012.

"He actually needed these diffraction gratings that didn't exist for his research," said Ron van Os, Inprentus CEO. "He needed something that he couldn't get, and then he started talking to other fellow scientists around the world who said it would be awesome if we can get something that has that level of precision, and then he said, 'Well, let's make a company out of this.'"

Diffraction gratings can be seen when you look at a CD or DVD and see white light diffracted into its different colors by the miniscule grooves.

Inprentus is able to manufacture diffraction gratings with 2,500 grooves per millimeter that efficiently separate the electromagnetic waves, allowing advanced materials researchers, for example, to better understand what a material is made of and how it will react in different situations.

Diffraction gratings have helped researchers improve batteries, chocolate and trash bags, for example, van Os said.

"They can actually look in real time at how plastic behaves under stress," he said. "Basically, they use these mirrors of ours to catch the wavelengths and understand what happens, and that's how Dow Chemical can make (trash bags) so thin."

Instead of using traditional methods to make diffraction gratings, Inprentus adapted machinery typically used in the semiconductor industry.

"We looked at what they're using in the semiconductor industry to position wafers when they're doing lithography," said Jonathan Manton, Inprentus chief technology officer.

Inprentus has been using the money it raised to build its current facility, which has a clean room plenum where technicians operate the machinery.

"This is where all the money went," van Os said. "This is truly state of the art."

This Series A round of funding was led by Flyover Capital, with participation from Serra Ventures and some private individuals.

"The team there led by Ron is just phenomenal," said Keith Molzer, a general partner with Flyover Capital. "They moved into that building and have done a great job of getting that up to speed for production."

They graduated from the EnterpriseWorks incubator in February, Research Park Director Laura Frerichs said.

"(Abbamonte) built a great product, business and team to launch his company, and we are grateful for his commitment to grow Inprentus in the Champaign-Urbana community," Frerichs said.

Inprentus now has about 15 employees and will be making a diffraction grating for NASA that could make it to space.

"We're actually making a grating for them to go up in space and to take a picture of the corona of the sun," van Os said. "We can measure the light waves coming out of it, so that's pretty cool."

Van Os said they have plenty of work lined up.

"We have a very healthy forward looking pipeline of opportunities," he said. "The nice part about this particular industry is that everybody talks to each other, and once you do well, everybody else wants to buy from you."