Bill Watkins, one of the more outspoken execs in IT tech world, will try to take light emitting diodes (LEDs) mainstream as the new CEO of Bridgelux.
Watkins served as the CEO of Seagate from 2004 and 2009 and played an instrumental role in getting the disk drive maker back on its feet and moving it in the market for flash memory-based drives. But amid a downturn in January 2009, he got fired.
At Bridgelux, Watkins will try to take the company from small to large-scale manufacturing. One of the first tasks lay in building a fabrication facility in the Bay Area to produce chips. One can imagine a funding round to follow--part of the territory when it comes to new factories. UPDATE: Seagate put out the formal annoucement and said it's raised $50 million to build said fab.
"It will be the first fab in the Bay Area in a long time," he said in an interview. "We have an opportunity in America to take the lead in lighting again."
Mark Swoboda, the CEO until now, will remain president.
Bridgelux has devised LEDs as well as novel ways to package LEDs to reduce cost, one of the stumbling blocks that have prevented the lights from going mainstream. Last year, it came out with a way to package several LEDs, which are chips, under a single phosphor-coated lens rather than separate lenses for each LED. Fewer components leads to lower prices. (See a video of Bridgelux's light in action here).
In a few weeks, the company will introduce show off products that integrate more components together. Ultimately, Bridgelux wants to produce parts that could be drop-in replacements for bulbs and much of the electronics inside of a lamp. Bridgelux has aimed at producing light bulb equivalent LED bulbs for around $25 in the next one to two years. Watkins says he wants to take that to $10. To date, Bridgelux and Luminus Devices out of MIT have been the most visible venture-backed start-ups.
How far up the supply chain will Bridgelux go? It's a delicate dance, but don't count on Bridgelux, funded by VantagePoint Venture Partners, making complete lamps or lighting fixtures like Philips and some others. Instead, it will concentrate on components and integrated component packages that it will sell to fixture makers. The fixture makers will then take the parts, integrate them, and leverage their sales and channel relationships in a way that will get everyone's products to market.
"I don't like to compete against customers," Watkins said.
The next few years could mark the long-awaited launch of LEDs. LEDs consume about 1/10th of the power of incandescent bulbs and about half of the power of CFLs. LEDs can last 50,000 hours, which comes out to around 19 years under ordinary usage conditions. Some retailers also state that LED lights can boost sales because different effects with brightness and color can be achieved. Australia has already stopped selling incandescent bulbs and the EU, Canada and the U.S. have imposed regulations that will lead to the demise of incandescents in the next few years. Lighting accounts 22 percent of the electric power in the U.S. so widespread LED adoption is expected to have a significant impact on power consumption.
"This is a $100 billion market," Watkins said. "Every light in the world is going to go to LEDs."
LEDs, though, still come at a premium. To date, LEDs have been adopted by car makers for tail lights and by some cities to replace old streetlights, they haven't penetrated the mainstream lighting market in a big way. Panasonic and Sharp have come out with $40 LED bulbs that produces as much light as a 60 watt bulb. Although these bulbs can cut power prices by around $12 a year, customers are likely still leery of paying $40 for a bulb.
As a result, LEDs will likely sell far stronger in the streetlight and commercial lighting market and then later migrate to homes. Commercial customers also save on maintenance because far fewer bulbs need to get changed.
Bridgelux faces huge competitors: Philips, General Electric, Osram, Toshiba and other household names sell LEDs too. Many of these companies have also said they plan to acquire smaller outfits. How will Bridgelux survive? It's got 300 patents and cross-license from Cree, Watkins said. Thus, it's not short on intellectual property. The
If anything, Watkins will likely get Bridgelux's name in the news more. He likes to talk openly with press about technology, the competitive landscape and the brain drain in America and it helped make Seagate's name visible in the headlines. At Seagate, he was part of a group that changed a somewhat abrasive corporate culture in which executives would swear at each other ("I have never been around so many people who just screamed and yelled at each other," he told me once. "Everyone was, 'F--- you, f--- you. 'The sales guy would say, 'I need this" 'and the operations guy would say, "Well, f--- you. I'm not doing that.'") The fact that he talked openly about corporate culture was somewhat novel.
Biography-wise, he's also somewhat different than a lot of tech execs. Instead of going straight out of high school to a name-brand college, he joined the army. He was also a Hilary Clinton supporter and raised money to build a museum dedicated to Grateful Dead. ("I used to follow them around all the time in a truck in Texas," he told me.)