Jeremy Burroughes loves showing off the week’s newest color. The current special is a shocking pink. Just the sort of thing a toy maker could use to appeal to young girls, he muses. But this is no ordinary fashion statement. Burroughes, director of technical development at Cambridge Display Technology (CDT), is holding a glowing piece of plastic plugged into a bank of electronic equipment.
The pink glow comes from one of the hundreds of minuscule light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that Burroughes and his colleagues are testing in a back room of CDT’s labs in the outskirts of Cambridge, England. There, surrounded by Cambridge University and crammed into a small office building that it shares with three other high-tech companies, CDT is putting plastic LEDs through their paces, testing not just new colors but also how efficiently the devices turn electricity into light and how long they last before the light fades-crucial parameters that will determine the commercial viability of these remarkable new materials, which are known in the trade as light-emitting polymers, or LEPs.
The ambition of CDT is no less than to turn these glowing plastics into products that will revolutionize computers and TV displays, as well as toys, billboards and just about any other object that you could make out of a piece of plastic that gives off light. That ambition may be feasible because LEPs have dramatic advantages over current display technologies. And despite the university-like setting of the company, CDT’s effort is no academic pipe dream.
The company is part of what is becoming known in Europe as “the Cambridge phenomenon,” a flurry of spinouts based on technology developed at Cambridge University, one of England’s most prestigious institutions. This ancient seat of learning, in the flat and inaccessible east of England, has given birth to a cluster of high-tech companies that rival those in the city’s North American namesake. And among these young darlings of British entrepreneurs, CDT, which numbers among its founders some of the early pioneers in the development of LEPs, is a rising star.