Boston’s LED Cluster: Lighting Up Everything From Projectors to the Pru

4/20/10Follow @xconomy

Boston isn’t Houston as far as energy industry hubs go. But here in New England, there is a lot of innovation with light-emitting diodes, these energy-conserving tools that can be found everywhere from homes to warehouses to urban skyscrapers, and embedded in products like TVs, projectors, medical devices, and software systems.

Light-emitting diodes, which are semiconductors that release energy when voltage is applied, are commonly referred to as LEDs for short. They’ve long been seen as energy-efficient lighting replacements, but the technologies sprouting up out of this city aren’t nearly so straightforward.

“There’s no doubt that we’re at the front end of a major trend here,” says Flybridge Capital Partners general partner Jon Karlen, who sits on the board of Digital Lumens, a Boston-based startup. LED technology started with massive architectural lighting displays from Philips Color Kinetics (another Boston-area fixture), but is spreading to more everyday, consumer uses, he says. “We’re just seeing it crack open general illumination. Everywhere you see a light bulb, there’s going to be an LED fixture in the next five to 10 years.”

We’ve counted at least five companies working in the LED space in Boston. These companies make everything from LED chip inserts for existing lighting fixtures, to commercial scale LED displays, to smart lighting systems that pair efficient LED lighting with sensors and computer systems to intelligently control the illumination in industrial facilities.

There’s a reason why the area’s LED-related companies each seem to do something a bit different, says Canaccord Adams senior equity analyst Jed Dorsheimer, who follows trends in the lighting and solar industries. In almost every segment of the LED production process, there’s room for innovation—from cost to efficiency to overall technology, he says.

“It’s well suited to smaller companies that are more nimble and that can focus on a particular piece or aspect of the supply chain,” he says.

Read below for snapshots of the five companies we rounded up in the space.

—Last year, Wade wrote about this Luminus Devices’ near speed-of-light transition from concept to business. This company is the brainchild of MIT-trained physicist Alexei Erchak and his former advisor, John Joannopolous. Luminus Devices, based in Billerica, MA, now says it makes the world’s brightest LED, in the form of what it calls PhlatLight chipsets, named for photonic lattices. The technology could light up everything from residential spaces to arenas to TV studios, but that depends on getting the LEDs into preexisting devices and fixtures.

Luminus Phlatlight CST90 chipsetThis condition hasn’t deterred Luminus investors. The company has raised a total of $159 million, with the most recent Series F round coming in at $19 million. The company started chasing down large LEDs when projector company InFocus said it wanted larger-scale LEDs for their devices. The company realized that the same technology could be used in rear-projection TVs that relied on Digital Light Projection (DLP) technology. It succeeded in that quest, and produced red, green, and blue LED chipsets that were taken up by Samsung for its TVs.

When cheaper, sleeker LCD TVs completely overtook those powered by Digital Light Projection technology in 2007, Luminus adapted yet again. LED technology to light up small-scale devices such as flashlights, medical devices, projectors, and architectural lighting became its next mission. This past January, the company announced that Samsung and LG were using its technology in their projectors.

Luminus is working on permeating the general lighting market to illuminate residential and office settings. The lack of white LEDs has produced a tough barrier to entry in this space for LED technology companies. But Luminus found a way to do this in February 2009 when it teamed with Nichia, a Japan-based LED maker.

Luminus Devices is now depending on lighting fixture partners who are willing to make inserts that would allow the PhlatLight chips to be plugged into sockets designed for traditional bulbs, a move the company thinks will be facilitated by the federal government’s push for energy efficiency. On Monday the company announced Philips would be using its PhlatLight chips in its LED display lights, which are ideally suited to lighting museums and art galleries.

—As you can tell from the Luminus Devices story, color presents a challenge in the LED lighting space. QD Vision, a Watertown, MA-based company seeks to use what it calls quantum dot technology to efficiently replace traditional incandescent lighting without the harsh color and tone characteristic of many LEDs. QD Vision is applying quantum dots, which are semiconductor crystals that emit light when excited by light or electricity, to films that can go over traditional LED devices, making the light more akin to the warmer illumination provided by incandescent bulbs.

Last month, Charlotte, NC-based LED maker Nexxus Lighting (NASDAQ: NEXS) announced it was shipping replacement light bulbs with QD’s dot films, making QD Vision the first company to apply quantum dot technology commercially. The company has secured nine patents, and has another 120 pending.

QD Vision LogoQD Vision has raised $33 million from North Bridge Venture Partners, Highland Capital Partners, DTE Energy Ventures, and In-Q-Tel, the venture-funding arm of the U.S. intelligence community. At present, the startup’s technology is occupying the home and commercial lighting spaces, but it sees a future in using its quantum dot films to light up screens in TVs and cell phones.

—Boston startup Digital Lumens is uniting LEDs with networking and software technology to create a complete smart lighting system that aims to shrink commercial lighting costs by 90 percent. The company, which has raised about $11.3 million from backers that include Flybridge Capital Partners, Stata Venture Partners, Black Coral Capital, and individual investors, is out to transform industrial facilities with LED lighting systems that also intelligently monitor energy functions and can be programmed to responsively turn on and off based on a building’s function.

At present, lighting for 250,000 square foot commercial-scale facilities costs about $1 per square foot annually. Digital Lumens’ system is designed to bring that cost down to a dime, by combining more efficient LED lighting with software that helps monitor energy usage and eliminate inefficiencies, says CEO Tom Pincince. The reduction in energy is the equivalent of taking 109 cars off the road or 139 homes off the power grid, for each commercial facility that adopts the new technology, he says.

Digital Lumens, founded in spring 2008, has a staff with more than a decade of LED experience, but its product hinges almost as heavily on software as it does light-emitting diodes. Its devices contain strips of LED lights and a mini computer processor with networking technology, allowing multiple fixtures to communicate wirelessly with one another to work responsively and intelligently. The system of lighting fixtures can be set up to all turn on at once, or turn on in a domino effect, depending on the use of the facility.

A facility administrator can track the entire landscape of devices from a software interface, and control them in zones that best correspond to the different patterns of use in the building. The interface also provides the building administrator information on how much energy the different zones are using, to better inform him or her about lighting options.

Revamping a 250,000 square foot commercial-scale building with Digital Lumens technology costs between $400,000 and $500,000, but the company’s goal is for the product to pay for itself in energy savings in about two years. The devices can last for decades, too, Pincince says. He hopes companies will look to the LED system as an efficient cost-cutting method in the difficult economy. “People would rather fire a kilowatt than fire an employee,” he says.

DigitalLumensUltimately, he envisions the technology showing up “anywhere you see a really bright light”—from big retail stores, to garages, to streetlights.

Philips Color Kinetics, of Burlington, MA, is also taking LED technology to the commercial building level, but is lighting up some famous landmarks around town. Think of Boston’s Old North Church, Prudential Tower, and TD Banknorth Garden. The company has indoor and outdoor architectural lighting installations at almost 17,000 sites across the globe.

Philips Color Kinetics is one of the older players in the Boston LED cluster (and the industry). The company started as Color Kinetics in 1997, which went public in 2004 and was acquired by Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands in summer 2007 (NYSE: PHG). In the decade-plus it has been around, the company has developed LED products with a wider range of capabilities and have gotten brighter, says Jim Anderson, Philips Color Kinetics’ director of strategic marketing and innovation.

The company has a wide variety of technologies. Even though it targets bigger, landmark-style buildings, the reasons for implementing it differs vastly from site to site. Boston’s Old North Church installment is much more built around efficiency and practicality than flashiness. The church’s older incandescent bulbs burned out quickly and were so hot they peeled the paint inside the building, Anderson says. Replacing them with Color Kinetics’ LED technology significantly reduced the maintenance burden on the building, he says.

In sites such as the Prudential Tower and TD Banknorth Garden, Color Kinetics’ technology is all about aesthetic and branding. The Pru unleashed the company’s LED floodlight system in December, which allows it to change the colored ring that surrounds the top of its building with a simple click, rather than swapping gels or filters like other technologies would require, Anderson says. “It’s about creating a new skyline,” he says.

—LumenZ is another Boston startup that’s out to tackle the color problems in the LED lighting space. The stealthy operation is working on technologies that use zinc oxide, the main component of sunscreen, to convert the harsh bluish light from LEDs into the more pleasing yellow amber light seen in traditional but less efficient bulbs. LumenZ started two years ago and is running out of Boston University’s Photonics Center, with $8 million in backing from General Catalyst Partners, Khosla Ventures, and New Venture Partners.

The company is still in the research and development phase, and is working on putting together technology that will “make a meaningful product for the market,” says LumenZ founder and chief technical officer Bunmi Adekore. He says his company is out to disprove the skepticism on functionality of zinc oxide in the LED space.

Challenges in color, efficiency, and affordability have precluded the use of LEDs in many residential settings, Adekore days. People are reluctant to place traditional LEDs in their homes because of the harsh color, but LEDs in more palatable colors are often expensive or inefficient in their energy output. “The idea is to create and do those three things successfully and simultaneously,” Adekore says.

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