Critical mass of interested clients allows LED innovators to jump ship
START-UP NATION: InfiniLED:Using light in a more intelligent way allows Cork-based InfiniLED to target a variety of industry partners
IMITATION MAY be the sincerest form of flattery, but InfiniLED staff were still a little taken aback when they recently discovered new industry competitors who only began work in the area after hearing a speech by InfiniLed’s own chief commercial officer.
“I gave a talk about how far our technology had gone at a conference, and it prompted our now competitors to say ‘OK, if they can make a business out of this, so should we,’ ” says Dr Bill Henry, the aforementioned commercial chief for the Cork-based start-up, “but we have a core patent that we think makes us unique.”
The origin of that patent dates back to 2004 when Dr Pleun Maaskant – a Dutch researcher working at UCC’s Tyndall National Institute – hit upon a concept for using the light generated by LEDs in a “more intelligent, more efficient manner” through controlling the light directly at the point where it is created.
Henry joined the research group looking into Maaskant’s ideas in 2007, working as an applications engineer and attempting to find commercial usages for the intellectual property in question. “IP gets useful when people are interested in paying money to use it,” says Henry, who explains that over the following three years a range of applications were found for the technology while potential clients were sounded out.
By the close of 2010 they had reached a “critical mass” of interested customers and the decision for InfiniLED to become a proper spin-off from Tyndall was taken, with the business – now led by chief executive Joe O’Keeffe – officially starting work in April of last year. Interest has since soared regarding the company’s patented µLEDs (also known as MicroLEDs) which are just 20 microns (or one fifth the width of a human hair) in diameter.
Henry adds: “When light is generated in an LED it spills out in all directions, and that’s grand for a lot of applications such as the headlamp on a car, where it’s a case of the more light there is the better. But for a lot of applications you don’t want that. Like a mobile phone – you hardly want the phone glowing in your hand and barely being able to see what’s on the screen. Or life sciences where perhaps you want to see whether something is wrong with a cell and you don’t want to shine a light on someone’s entire arm – you pinpoint a specific area that you’re interested in. With our technology you’re not flooding everything with background light. You have your target, and it’s a lot simpler.”
From a commercial standpoint, Henry points out that the company is “not going to compete on cost with the LED that goes on your Christmas tree”, rather they “let people know about the technology and they’ll come and buy it”. Possible applications include portable analytical and diagnostic devices, displays, micro-projectors, indicators, lithography, printing, endoscopy, product branding, optical communications and security and authentication.
In the case of the latter, Henry gives the example of using MicroLEDs to help fight against counterfeit pharmaceuticals or copied products. By integrating InfiniLED’s individually addressable LEDs into the product packaging or a tamper-proof label they can create a unique, “non-copyable solution to guarantee product authenticity”.
With the company boasting the world’s “lowest power consumption per visible unit of light”, the efficiencies on offer could see longer battery life for consumer devices like phones or laptops. Among the other usages, Henry also highlights the idea of printing as a major area for development.
At present, LED printers (similar to laser printers) use “pulse-flashes” across the entire page width to create an image. Henry says manufacturers can now utilise InfiniLED’s technology to avoid using “big bulky lights for scanning across the document” and instead control the lights within the device to switch on and off to create whatever pattern is wanted for printing, “resulting in more-efficient, lower-cost and smaller printers”.
So far, investment in the company has come both from Enterprise Ireland and a Canadian investment group which has entrusted InfiniLED with about €1.6 million in funding. With nine employees at present, some of those funds will go towards creating further positions over the coming year.
For the moment the company is concentrating on developing custom light solutions for “a number of different customers”. With an agreement in place allowing the company to use Tyndall Institute’s new “cleanroom” facilities for fabrication purposes, Henry hopes that by the end of the year InfiniLED can begin directly manufacturing parts for customers.
“The thing is,” says Henry, “if you take a look at the applications page on our website, there’s about 10 different areas [where] you can use our technology, and that’s just what we’ve come up with – people are coming to us once a week on average with new applications.”