Can a small, self-funded LED lighting startup out-innovate the massive lighting incumbents and VC-funded lighting firms?

LEDwiser is a ten-person startup in San Jose, California that believes it builds a better LED light bulb. We just spoke with the CEO and management of the firm.

The firm's technologists asked themselves how they might change the design concept of the LED light bulb and started by looking at the Bill of Materials (BOM) and breaking down the cost structure. Here's LEDwiser's take on the breakdown of its LED bulb:

  • The LED driver circuitry accounts for about 30 percent of the total cost
  • The LED chip subassembly is about 50 percent of the total cost
  • The heat sink is about 10 percent of the total cost
  • The remainder of the materials make up 10 percent of the cost


And a graph of the competitive BOM:


The CEO, Adi Merschon, made the comparison to a solar installation: cost has to be reduced from the module as well as the balance-of-system. In a LED bulb, that means cost has to be scrubbed not just from the light engine and the driver but from the rest of the bulb as well.

Merschon referred to the typical LED light as a "heat dissipation device" with a design dictated by thermal management and typically a cast aluminum heat sink that is heavy and expensive. The CEO also noted that the DOE has identified that 60 percent of LED light failures are due to drive circuitry, not the LED itself. And the drive circuitry failures are, in some measure, due to less-than-optimum management of heat.

So LEDwiser altered the traditional design of the LED bulb.

The firm isolated the LEDs from the body of the bulb; the outside of the bulb is thermally, mechanically, and electrically disconnected from the heat generating components. Instead the construction of the bulb "works like a chimney" to conduct air across heat sources, according to the CEO. The change in air flow design means the heavy aluminum heatsink is eliminated and lightweight plastic is used instead.

This passive air cooling contrasts with the liquid cooling used by Switch Lighting or the active membrane cooling advanced by Nuventix. Switch has begun deploying its LED bulb at retail and hotel sites.

Another LEDwiser innovation is using the same base and LED assembly with variations on the lensing and body to create different bulb design such as the standard A19 or PAR38 floodlight. This lowers the cost of materials, tooling, and the cost of certification.

VCs like Alan Salzman of VantagePoint and Jason Matlof of Battery Ventures have threatened us with imminent LED victory and yet it isn't happening too fast. Do you have any LED bulbs in your house or office? What's the holdup? It's happening in the enterprise space first (See report on the Enterprise LED market here) and will reach the residence when consumers are comfortable with the price, light quality, performance, and energy savings.

At the moment, though, LED penetration into the home and office is trivial. Investors and entrepreneurs take it as an article of faith that LEDS will win the market for general illumination as they have for backlighting and certain automotive applications. According to a McKinsey report, LEDs will account for 22 percent of lighting in 2016 and 46 percent in 2020. According to LEDwiser, residential payback with LED bulbs is four or five years, and the firm believes it can reduce that to two years based on low costs.

LEDwiser looks to sell a 60-watt equivalent for $16 -- compared to an equivalent bulb from Lighting Science Group selling for $22.

Groom Energy and Greentech Media Research predicted that the LED enterprise lighting market will grow by 30 percent in 2011 and surpass $1 billion in annual revenue by 2014. The 2010 U.S. market for commercial and industrial LED lighting was sized at $330 million in annual revenue.

The lighting market is a complicated ecosystem with an entrenched and fragmented supply chain and sales channel. This is the power of incumbency and perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing SSL startups. Mike Dauber, a VP at Battery Ventures, has said, "The lighting value chain is very complicated and highly controlled; a startup must show incentives to everyone in the value chain."

The solid state lighting materials ecosystem has many moving parts -- from LED chips to bulbs to fixtures to drivers to cooling and phosphors, we've listed some of the prominent players here.

Philips, General Electric, Osram, and Sylvania are the incumbents in the LED space. LED bulb and chip newcomers like LEDwiser, Switch, Lighting Science Group, Soraa, Bridgelux, and 2,000 Chinese vendors sending me daily emails are also looking to prosper in this new, huge market.

But those incumbents are not going to let this mammoth market slide from their hands without a considerable fight.