Arborlight: LED-Based Skylights and Sunshine in Real Time

Cubicle World, that mythical place where many of today’s office workers dwell, can be very dreary. These cramped little warrens are often marked by a lack of windows, harsh lighting, stale air, and screwy temperatures—the air conditioning blasts in the winter; the heat roars in the summer. Functionality and affordability rule, and somewhere much farther down on the list of corporate concerns lies aesthetics.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, Michael Forbis says. He’s the founder of the Ann Arbor-based startup Arborlight, a company that designs smart lights that incorporate LED components, optics, analytics, and embedded systems in order to mimic daylight.

“Daylight emulation is a brand-new concept in the industry,” Forbis says. “People want the experience of a window or a skylight, but due to building economics, that’s not always possible, thus 60 to 70 percent of commercial spaces simply can’t access daylight.”

The company’s Lightwell product looks and behaves just like a skylight. It tunes to geography and time, tracking the position of the sun throughout the day, mimicking the varying color, intensity, and directionality of daylight as normally experienced through traditional windows and skylights. “Users can tune the color, intensity, and even time preferences using mobile devices or a switch on the wall.”

The Lightwell has a second mode that is fully customizable by users. The “sun” can be programmed to rise at 6 a.m. or midnight, or anywhere in between. There’s also a nighttime mode, where users can define what time the lights dim. “It really impacts how people feel,” Forbis says.

Forbis says the Lightwell is the first product of its kind. In September, the Lightwell was recognized with a Next Generation Luminaires award from the U.S. Department of Energy, where judges praised its innovative color-tuning capabilities and called it a “cool concept with lots of opportunities.”

Arborlight is a University of Michigan spinout company that was established in 2010 by two U-M professors. The current team of five employees has been in place since 2011, and Forbis says much of the product development and technological improvements have happened over the past three years.

After graduating from U-M, Forbis worked in the aerospace industry developing military satellites and overseeing large construction projects in California and Boston. He returned to his home state and got involved with Arborlight, eventually working with the Ann Arbor SPARK business accelerator.

“Where we started with the founders’ concept was a very different place,” he says. “It started as a material science-based company to make light bulbs more efficient. We recognized that wouldn’t be a successful approach, so we started over in every sense. We came up with the idea to improve lighting and call it daylight emulation.”

Last summer, Arborlight raised a $500,000 seed round, and the company is currently in the process of raising Series A funding. In 2013, it won a $10,000 sector prize in the Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest. Arborlight is already generating revenue through sales of the Lightwell, which is made entirely in the U.S. and manufactured in Michigan. Forbis declined to name his customers, though he did say they included “very big name” Fortune 500 companies.

Though the Lightwell is currently only available to commercial customers, Arborlight plans to introduce a residential version in 2015. Forbis estimates that the commercial and residential markets combined are worth billions of dollars, and the company plans to eventually tailor its products to different kinds of settings, such as hospitals or schools.

“This is a very interesting time in the lighting world,” he says. “The decreasing cost of LED chips is making this kind of technological breakthrough affordable for the very first time. The aesthetics convey such a sense of realism that few remember that it’s not physically connected to the outside world.”

Above all, Forbis says, Arborlight products are designed not only to improve the value of a building’s space, but also the health and well-being of its occupants: “We have a very visceral connection to daylight, and that’s what this product taps into. Everyone who sees this wants it.”

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