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With $8 million in funding, LumenZ aims to brighten more homes with LEDs

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 2, 2010 11:29 AM

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Interesting that a spin-out from North Carolina State University would land on the sixth floor incubator space at Boston University's Photonics Center, but that's just what has happened with LumenZ Inc., an LED lighting start-up that has been all too happy to leave all of us in the dark about what they've been working on for the past two years. 

The company was founded in March 2008, raised $3 million in funding shortly thereafter from Cambridge-based General Catalyst and Khosla Ventures of Menlo Park, Calif., and produced a first working prototype by December of that year. (The company still has no Web site, though there's this succinct summary on General Catalyst's site.)

Founder Bunmi Adekore (pictured at right) was willing to chat a bit this week about what they've been up to since then which includes raising an additional $5 million last September.

Adekore has been working with a small team to produce zinc oxide crystals that can be used as light-emitting diodes. Zinc oxide, the primary substance in sunscreen, is cheap and non-toxic, he says. And the company's belief is that these zinc oxide-based LEDs will be not just less expensive to produce, but will generate light with better color quality than the bluish-white LEDs today.

"People automatically have an allergic reaction to light produced by a blue LED with a yellow phosphor coating over it," Adekore says, which is what is on the market today. "We have some kind of evolutionary affinity," Adekore says, "for that amber color quality you get from a candle, or a fire, or an incandescent bulb." LumenZ is working on LEDs that would emit light in the ultra-violet range, and be filtered through three or four layers of polychromatic phosphor coating. (That's a LumenZ researcher at left holding a prototype array containing 64 of the zinc oxide LEDs.)

His hope is to create an LED chip (others will integrate it into a finished lighting device) that can eventually bring attractive, inexpensive, energy efficient, long-lasting LED light into the home. Brightness is another challenge, something many buyers of LED lights today complain about. "The big market is creating a product that everyone wants to put in their house, not just in warehouses and in street lights," he says.

Adekore originally came to Boston for his post-doc work. In 2007, he met Dave Danielsen, a principal at General Catalyst, who introduced him to cleantech partner Hemant Taneja there. (Danielsen now works in the Department of Energy's ARPA-E research funding program.)

Adekore, a native of Nigeria, acknowledges that there's skepticism about using zinc oxide as a material in LEDs, but he's confident about the progress his nine-person team is making. (Gallium nitride is the incumbent material used in blue LED chips.) "This is not a two-year kind of thing," he says. "It requires investment over time, and it requires vision." The company has employees working at BU, at the clean room facility in Harvard's Nanoscale Science & Engineering Center, and in New Jersey.

Asked if he needs to raise additional funding in 2010, Adekore replies with the entrepreneur's well-worn adage: "It's better to raise money when you don't need it."

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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