Pictured above: (from the left) Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, Steve Case, Francois Chenard, and Secretary of Technology Jim Duffey.
Francois Chenard is a US and Canadian citizen. Francois was born in St-Louis (MO) and raised in Quebec City (Canada) where he earned his Ph.D. in Physics Laser and optics. Chenard started his first company CorActive (Canada) in 1998 to manufacture and commercialize specialty optical fibers for the Telecom industry. In 2006 Chenard started his current company IRflex in Virginia. At that time he had many contacts in the US and saw a great opportunity to start a new fiber optic company. The U.S. offers many possibilities to start a high-tech company through government contracts. SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) provides funding to develop new products and technologies. Working alone for the first three years and teaming up with universities and research centers, Chenard managed to obtain couple of Phase II awards to develop specialty fiber-optic devices. In 2009 it was time to build a team and setup the company with real offices and manufacturing capabilities. Francois decided to locate their new fiber facility in Danville, Southside Virginia. The city, Pittsylvania county and state provide great benefits and incentives to attract new companies in the region and create jobs. Now they have a state-of-the-art fiber production facility with clean room and a world-class technical team. Francois works most of the time in the company but also enjoys outdoor activities (hunting, golf, skiing) and spending quality time with family and friends.
Francois Chenard holding a spool of fiber
CIT: Tell us about your current venture.
Francois: IRflex develops and manufacture optical fiber to transmit mid-infrared light. This fiber is very different from commercial optical fibers used in the visible and for the telecommunication. Our mid-infrared fiber costs more than $200 a foot compare to telecom fiber that costs less than 1 cent per foot. Also our unique fiber is the only one to transmit mid-infrared light. We have exclusive license on mid-infrared fiber technologies developed at Naval Research Laboratory.
Heat from hot metal parts and plumes from jet engines emit in the mid-infrared. The military uses infrared countermeasure (IRCM) systems to protect tactical aircraft and their crew against heat seeking missile threats. IRCM system on the platform combines a high-power mid-infrared laser and a pointer to disable the guiding system and defeat the heat-seeking missile. Our mid-infrared fiber enables the development of next generation fiber-coupled IRCM system with higher performance, better reliability, and lower cost.
Also chemicals (gas, liquid, solid) have specific absorption peaks in the mid-infrared. The unique spectral absorption features in the mid-infrared are the chemical fingerprints of every chemicals and molecules. Chemical spectroscopy can be used to detect chemical species (chemical sensing) or monitor a reaction (process control). Sensing applications are various: defense (explosive detection, chemical warfare screening), environment (pollution, hazardous materials), medical (selective laser surgery, noninvasive diagnostic). Our mid-infrared fiber is used between the target under test and the laser or detector. The mid-infrared fiber delivery system enables easy and simple way to transmit mid-infrared light. Furthermore the mid-infrared fiber is essential for remote sensing where the system must be far from the target because of harsh or hazardous environment.
CIT: What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur ?
Infrared glass fabrication equipment
Francois: Every good entrepreneur must have the “4 P’s”. I simplify in the following.
Passion:You believe you have a great idea. You think about your company 24/7. You invest yourself 100% in the company. I don’t believe a good entrepreneur can have two jobs simultaneously. You always want to improve and grow the company to its full potential.
Perseverance:You must always be positive and optimist. Nobody will motivate you more than the success of your company. Find solutions to every problem. There are always solutions or paths around problems. Starting a company is not easy. There will be obstacles, delays, and losses. You must learn from these experiences and move on stronger. Everything happens for a reason (Quote from a colleague).
Patience:Founding a company takes time. I started in my home basement for the first three years. I got contracts to keep me working couple of weeks/month. During these years, I invested all my wages and personal assets in the company. Finally the fourth year, I hired my first employee and I setup the company in the current location. Startup companies are the most vulnerable financially the first 4-5 years. Contracts are postponed, investors wait to put in their money, sales take more time than anticipated, payments are delayed… Patience, perseverance, and passion help you go through the “death valley”.
Priorities:You must have Plans: business plan and personal plan. You must answer the questions: who, what, when, where, and why. Business plan should be done annually with a strategic plan for 3-5 years. This is essential for the success and growth of the company. Your personal plan is as important to obtain a good equilibrium in your life with the company. You make the plans based on your priorities.
Technical experts working on the fiber draw tower in a clean room
CIT: What events/meetup groups are essential for startups?
Francois: An entrepreneur is alone with himself. You cannot learn or master all the skills to start a company. You must team up or consult with experts for different purposes: business plan, accounting, legal issues, financing, hiring… Look in your local area for training for startups and also business association. You can find a lot of information and answers talking to other entrepreneurs. Funding a startup is probably the most difficult part. You must look at the federal, state, county, and city levels for ways to obtain grants, or other incentives. For myself, SBIR is a very important financial tool to develop our technologies and products.
Fiber test and measurement equipment
CIT: How important is collaboration and knowledge sharing to you?
Francois: I want my team to collaborate and work together as much as possible. My job is to hire the best expertise for each core jobs. Then it is important for me to share and transfer the knowledge to each individual, which then can share with and help the others. This way I can delegate important jobs and tasks to the others with confidence. One thing I must prevent myself from is: I don’t always have the best solution. I must let the others find their own solutions first. Then we can discuss if necessary.
CIT: What makes your city's startup scene unique?
Francois: Danville is a small town, which was driven by tobacco and textile industries. Now that these prosperous days are gone, the city is working very hard to attract new companies and create quality jobs in the vicinity. Danville community college conducts customized advanced manufacturing training programs utilized for technicians. Danville is only couple of hours drive from major Universities with science and engineering programs: Averett, University of North Carolina (Greensboro, Chapel Hill, Charlotte), Wake Forest, NC State, Duke, Virginia Tech , and University of Virginia to name a few. So qualified bachelors or grad students can be easily found and hired. Major airports (Greensboro (NC) and Raleigh (NC)) are one-hour driving distance. Also the cost of doing business in Southern Virginia and the economic incentives are extremely competitive: Federal incentives (ex. SBA HUB Zone), State incentives (ex. Virginia Tax Incentives, Enterprise Zone), and Local incentives (ex. Enterprise Zone). Furthermore Southern Virginia has specific funds for economic development: Virginia Tobacco Revitalization and Indemnification Commission. Personally I enjoy Danville for its small but diversified community and high quality of life. Finally one great advantage to be in a small town is: There is no traffic. You always know when you will arrive at destination. You cannot say the same in DC…
President of IRflex Corporation