Luminus Devices: Finding Its Way Toward the Light With High-Efficiency LEDs

Luminus Devices in Billerica, MA, may hold the record among Massachusetts technology companies for the shortest time between conception and launch. But the journey since then has been anything but straightforward.

One summer day in 2002, recent MIT PhD graduate Alexei Erchak and his former advisor, physicist John Joannopolous, were meeting to talk about whether Erchak should accept a lucrative job offer he’d just received, or start his own company—perhaps around the work he’d done in Joannopolous’s lab on ways to use photonic crystals to extract more light from LEDs. “John said, ‘Let’s give Ray Stata a call and see what he thinks,'” says Erchak.

Stata, of course, is the famous MIT alum who co-founded Analog Devices, and a frequent venture investor in local startups. He took the call, and said he had half an hour to talk—but only if Erchak and Joannopolous could come to his office right away.

“We flew out of John’s office, sped down the Mass Pike at 90 miles per hour—at this point I still had jeans and a T-shirt on—and we ended up at that meeting,” Erchak recalls. “We walked into a big board room totally unprepared, except for some slides I’d grabbed out of my PhD presentation. We said ‘We have no idea how to deploy this technology, but if you give us some seed funding, we’ll go figure it out.’ Ray, being a very entrepreneurial-minded person, said that was all he needed to hear.”

By the end of the day, Erchak was at an attorney’s office signing incorporation papers—and had a promise of $200,000 from Stata.

Alexei ErchakSeven years and at least three iterations of its business plan later, Luminus Devices makes the world’s brightest LEDs, using highly guarded methods based on Erchak’s research and other technologies to manufacture its own “PhlatLight” chipsets right here in Massachusetts. (The “Phlat” stands for photonic lattice.)

The company is poised to help reinvent not only portable devices such as pocket projectors, but the entire lighting industry. Retail, residential, outdoor, stadiums and TV studios, you name it—almost anywhere there’s a conventional incandescent or fluorescent bulb, Luminus’s technology offers a brighter, longer-lasting, less toxic, and in many cases more energy-efficient alternative.

“This company is a home run just waiting to happen,” says Keith Ward, a lighting industry veteran who joined Luminus five months ago as president and CEO, replacing founding CEO Udi Meirav. “LEDs are seven times more efficient than incandescent and starting to surpass halogen and metal halide, so if you can fit them into the existing infrastructure, it’s a win.”

Unfortunately, that’s a big if. The one shadow in Luminus’s outlook is that the company is entirely dependent on device makers, lighting-fixture manufacturers, and other partners to get its PhlatLight LEDs out into the world. It’s a fact that has sent the startup back to the drawing board twice—the first time shortly after Stata’s seed investment, when it became clear that the company’s initial target market, cell-phone manufacturers, weren’t ready to incorporate a new light source into their displays, and the second time just in the last two years, as an unexpectedly rapid drop in the price of big-screen LCD televisions killed off demand for rear-projection DLP televisions, an application for which Luminus’s large, bright LEDs were thought to be ideal.

But Luminus’s investors have signaled their confidence by continuing to pour cash into the company—most recently, in a $72 million Series E round led by … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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