“If you were to look at the Fortune 500, you'd have a five percent probability at this point of hitting one of our customers,” said Zach Gentry, Vice President of Marketing and Product Management at Enlighted, a lighting controls startup. “If you were to look at it by the end of the year, I would suspect that it would be 10 percent.”

Enlighted similarly claims that its systems already control the lights in just under two million square feet of real estate. By the end of this quarter, the company projects it will have closer to three million square feet installed.

In 2009, networking veterans Tushar Dave, Tanuj Mohan, and Premal Ashar founded the Sunnyvale, California-based firm. They sought to apply lessons from the networking business to the lighting industry. In 2011, Enlighted raised $14.2 million from Intel Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

With significant venture capital funding comes ambitious goals (and vice versa).  Enlighted aims to combine the reliability of wired lighting systems with the lower cost of wireless systems and to distribute both lighting controls and sensors.

“[We] essentially limit the length of the wire to the distance between a controller, which fits within the fixture, and a sensor, which takes in all of the environmental data and informs that controller,” said Gentry. “At each fixture, there is a sensor [and] a controller … connected by a wire. In order for that system to work, each sensor has to have distributed to it the intelligence in order to make real decisions in the real world. That’s what we do that’s special.”

According to Enlighted, average energy savings run about 60 percent to 70 percent, thanks to enhanced occupancy sensing (automatic shutting off of lights during periods of non-use), daylight harvesting (dimming of lights in response to sunlight), and task tuning (adjusting of light levels to suit the specific use of a lighted workspace, e.g., the operation of a computer).

“Our objective is to optimize energy use for comfort and energy savings within each fixture,” said Gentry. “Each fixture acts autonomously to its environment. A light that is near a window is going to respond to daylight and reduce [lighting levels] appropriately. The fixture above an unoccupied desk [seat] … is either going to turn down or turn off … when there is nobody in that seat." He continued, "Most building standards are based on the idea that an occupant with a certain level of visual acuity should be able to see what’s on [a printed] page.  But in our modern world, a great majority of people are working at computers [and] have a strong preference for having the lighting overhead reduced.”

Unlike occupancy sensors that turn off all lights when a conference room is completely empty, Enlighted’s sensors turn down individual lights when the seats below and around them are unoccupied, enabling greater energy savings.

“Because it is a slow ramp-down, most people won’t recognize that it even happened,” said Gentry. “We ramp down light in such a way that it is unknown to most people.”

A critical Enlighted innovation is in its digital signal processing, which improves on standard analog occupancy sensors. Another key innovation is in the firm’s lighting control algorithms, which enable more accurate sensing by reducing false negatives and false positives and incorporating a space’s historical use patterns and users’ historical positions.

Enlighted is one of many venture-backed companies pursuing networked lighting. Redwood Systems last week released a lighting controls product for all lighting fixture types. Adura Technologies, which Gentry co-founded, illuminates millions of square feet of commercial real estate. Daintree Networks last month added power metering capabilities to its ZigBee-based wireless networking platform. Digital Lumens is also in this market.

But according to Gentry, Enlighted is the only company whose systems benefit from distribution of control and distribution of sensing. Adura distributes control, but not sensing. Redwood distributes sensing, but not control. Daintree relies on a centralized area controller.

“A centralized architecture is the way that we used to do computer systems. It is a great system until one day the mainframe [breaks] and then no one can do anything. We got rid of that kind of architecture when people moved to the internet or to cloud computing,” said Gentry. “On the building automation side, we moved from a command and control system … to a system where every system in the building is programmed to a controller.”

Do Enlighted systems come at greater cost?

“For offices, the number that we have been able to validate in almost every case is a $1.50 per square foot [for] hardware, the network that we provide, installation and commissioning,” said Gentry.

“The thing that kills lighting control systems [in terms of cost] is not necessarily the installation, though that is a component -- it is the commissioning,” continued Gentry. “Because we have eyes and a brain in each fixture, we can set it up with instructions at each fixture that will handle all situations. Instead of sequencing all the devices within a room, we just set each fixture in a certain profile. In a typical 10,000-square-foot space, we can be done with the commission in half an hour to 45 minutes.”

The only Enlighted client Gentry was willing to name was Interface Global, the carpet tile manufacturer. But he promised that in the next few weeks, the company would identify additional customers.

Enlighted faces the same sales challenges that other lighting innovators have encountered -- namely, for new construction, a large number of parties, including architects, engineers, general contractors and electrical contractors, influence lighting specifications.  For existing buildings, contractors whose bread and butter is selling lighting may be reluctant to sell lighting controls, which they perceive as complex.

In addition, the march toward LEDs makes the economics of Enlighted’s system harder to justify.

“If [companies] have already taken really advanced measures to improve the light levels in their buildings, at a certain point, it becomes more and more difficult to justify,” admits Gentry. “But it always makes sense. It is just a question of how long [the payback is]. We have a pretty rich environment of opportunities available to us in California. [...] As the price [of Enlighted’s system] goes down, there will be an increasing share of businesses in which it will make [economic] sense.”

Yoni Cohen has worked for greentech venture capital firms in San Francisco and Israel and reported about environmental innovation for numerous publications. Follow Yoni on twitter @Cohen_Yoni.