Shedding a new light on LEDs
LEDs are about to transform lighting - and entrepreneurs should be aglow.
By Paul Kedrosky, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Technology revolutions have touched every aspect of daily life, except one: light.

The two main methods by which we light our homes, offices, cars, and the like are fluorescent and incandescent technologies. The former hasn't changed much in 50 years, and the latter hasn't changed appreciably in more than a century.


It's time to flip the switch. Bright and cost-effective technologies are arriving, and they're finally beginning to supplant old lighting sources.

Most of these new lights are variants on light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. But these are not the LEDs of your youth - simple red or yellow lights that turn on and off. Instead they're power-efficient, bright, small, and long-lasting, and can produce a spectrum of colors.

The market beyond cell phones

In 2005 high-brightness LEDs were a $4 billion industry, one that until recently had been growing an average of 42 percent a year, thanks largely to cell phones. Phonemakers have been snapping up LEDs at a furious pace for years. Today that market is more or less saturated, with industry analysts expecting single-digit growth in 2006.

But far from being the end of the LED story, this is only the beginning. Like computer chips, LEDs have seen their performance - the amount of light they put out - double every 18 to 24 month. What does that mean? With the cell phone market no longer soaking up ever-increasing production, LEDs are set to become drastically cheaper.

Even at current prices, LEDs have powerful advantages over conventional lightbulbs, like lower power consumption, a 70-fold increase in life span, and fewer harmful pollutants. As a result, LEDs are showing up everywhere: in digital-camera flashes, Christmas lights, Times Square-style video displays, even traffic signals. Next year we will see the first car - a Lexus - with LED headlights. By about 2015, analysts say, most lights sold for the home will be LED-based.

Venture capital interest

With so many markets emerging for LEDs, there's a corresponding boomlet in related entrepreneurship. Color Kinetics (Charts), a provider of lighting systems, went public in 2004; Luminus Devices, which develops technology for LED-based rear-projection TVs, recently announced a $38 million round of venture capital financing from investors like Draper Fisher Jurvetson; and Element Labs, whose tube-shaped LEDs appeared in a Coldplay music video, raised a round of angel financing earlier this year.

This is exciting stuff, and it has helped turn high-brightness LEDs into a white-hot venture investment category. But even if you're not sitting on a stack of LED technology patents, you can still participate. What opportunities open up when you can create incredibly bright point sources of light? Don't just think about replacing lightbulbs. We can now consider the wholesale elimination of darkness.

Funky new ideas are already beginning to appear: Kitchen countertops lit from below. LED-lit gear to make search-and-rescue workers more visible. Solar-powered curtains that light up at night.

New lighting opportunities are emerging everywhere, most of them limited only by entrepreneurial creativity. It may have taken more than 100 years for it to happen, but the lighting industry is set for some long-overdue illumination.

Paul Kedrosky is the executive director of the William J. von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement at the University of California at San Diego and a VC with Canadian firm Ventures West.



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