UW spin-out LumiSands has a bright idea for powering LEDs
Chang-Ching Tu was not necessarily looking to start a business when he first contacted the UW Center for Commercialization (C4C). He wanted to continue research on his invention— a cheaper and more eco-friendly material that replaces an important component of LED lights.
Working with Dr. Lih Y. Lin, UW professor of electrical engineering, Tu had discovered that silicon phosphors hold promise for replacing the rare earth element phosphors now used in LEDs. Earlier this month, Tu took a big step by entering into an exclusive option agreement to negotiate a license for the technology from the UW with the start-up company he co-founded, LumiSands, to continue product development and introduce the technology to the market.
Lighting industry seeks alternatives for rare earth elements (REEs)
Silicon is relatively cheap and easy to use. Rare earth elements (REEs) are expensive, and the mining process poses environmental hazards. Despite the name, rare earth metals are fairly abundant, but they are not found in densely packed deposits except in a few countries, such as China which controls 97% of supply and has been reducing export quotas in recent years. Mining REEs involves churning up large areas of land, and that churning often expels dangerous radioactive material into the air. Elevated prices, environmental hazards, uncertain supply, and intellectual property restrictions on LED applications imposed by major industry players have driven the lighting industry to seek alternatives for REE phosphors.
Pursuing the Market Opportunity
Tu’s postdoctoral advisor, materials science and engineering professor Guozhong Cao, urged Tu to pursue commercialization for his innovation, and Tu followed by contacting the C4C. C4C technology manager Ryan Buckmaster met with Tu to review his research findings, provide initial advice, and organize a team to assist in key aspects of spinning out a company and moving an innovation to market.
As a first step, Buckmaster introduced Tu to C4C’s team of entrepreneurs-in-residence, who provided valuable guidance, and to industry contacts. C4C staff filed the patent applications essential to protect intellectual property and supported Tu’s efforts to obtain grant funding which included a C4C Commercialization Fellowship.
“We were very impressed with Chang-Ching’s passion and drive to see the technology he discovered commercialized,” commented Buckmaster. “We selected him as a Commercialization Fellow to both give him time to further develop the technology and, just as importantly, better understand its market potential.”
Working closely with Tu as a business partner and company co-founder is Ji Hoo, a friend and electrical engineering graduate student. Together, they entered two UW start-up competitions in early 2012 — the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge Competition and the UW Business Plan Competition. They took their knowledge and experience from those two competitions, plus guidance from C4C, to successfully apply for a Washington Research Foundation gift funding of $50,000 in 2012.
“With that funding, we could finally have the resources to focus on critical development towards a product,” said Tu.
And they continue to grow. Recent funding awards include $150,000 from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant in December 2012 and $25,000 from the Burke Center Jones Milestones/Foster Acceleration Award in February 2013 to LumiSands. LumiSands has recently taken office and lab space in the C4C New Ventures Facility in Fluke Hall, the UW’s start-up incubator.
“We are in the proof-of-concept stage,” said Hoo. “We are standardizing the silicon nanoparticles so that customers can swap their rare earth-based products with our silicon products.”
As Tu and Hoo lead their business towards the launch of a first product, they see other opportunities for growth. As of May 2013, LumiSands has attracted angel and W Fund investments that will be matched by the NSF.
“This technology has many other applications,” said Tu. “We’ll go where the market leads us.”