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Making Light Work

Thomas Edison is acclaimed, above all else, for inventing the light bulb. While his other inventions-such as the phonograph, the mimeograph and the tickertape machine-have been displaced in recent decades by digital technologies, the light bulb continues to shine on. Now, after 12 decades, technological advances are finally threatening to dethrone it. Anticipating the transition, the major lighting manufacturers are forging alliances with LED makers. General Electric Lighting joined forces with chip-maker Emcore last year to form a lighting division called GELCore, based in Independence, Ohio. Philips Lighting and Agilent Technologies, a Hewlett-Packard spinoff, created LumiLeds in San Jose. And Osram Sylvania has teamed with the semiconductor business of its parent company, Siemens. “You’re seeing a big drive by light bulb manufacturers, who are in some sense eating into their own business, but with the recognition that if they don’t do it, someone else will,” says Makarand Chipalkatti, marketing and technical manager for LED light services at Osram Sylvania in Danvers, Mass.

Not all the players in this field, however, are big companies. Startups are getting into the act as well. Mueller and Lys of Color Kinetics met at Carnegie Mellon University, where Lys earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and Mueller majored in computer and electrical engineering, with a minor in fine art. Their first venture into lighting, in 1992, was to build a novelty sign like one Mueller had seen in the Detroit Science Center. A single vertical row of LEDs displayed slices of an image, one column at a time. The human brain, responding as if the viewer’s eye were scanning across an unbroken image, would reassemble the picture. The first sign Mueller made said “LOVE”; he gave it to his mother. Then, for the roommates who bet him he couldn’t do it, he built a sign that read “BEER.”

“We wrote a business plan around it because I was taking business school classes,” recalls Mueller. He had three goals for the resulting firm, Stone Age Technologies. The first two were typical student desires: earn some beer money and get a couple of freebies (in this case, free signs). “The third goal was to be on the cover of In Pittsburgh magazine,” he says, picking through a basket of designer potato chips to find the orange ones. “My new goal is Rolling Stone.”

“I’ll settle for the Wall Street Journal,” puts in Lys, the shorter-haired, less kinetic half of the pair. The technical guru, Lys is an engineer who, like his counterparts at computer startups, comes to work around noon and stays late.

Although Lys and Mueller came up with the idea for digital lighting in 1993, they put it aside when Mueller and his brother Gary went off to found an economics research firm, Internet Securities, Inc. The brothers sold 80 percent of the Boston-based company last year for $43 million. Mueller disdains the traditional “brass, glass and gas” lighting industry. “It’s boring,” he declares. “There’s no technology involved.”

Maybe not, but there certainly is money involved. The United States buys $3.5 billion worth of incandescent bulbs, fluorescent tubes and halogen lamps each year; globally the market is $11.5 billion. So far, the market for bright, visible-light LEDs is relatively puny-about $680 million, according to research firm Strategies Unlimited. But advances in LED technology are moving these devices into an increasing number of applications, and the market is expected to grow to $1.8 billion in five years.

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