LED Maker Xicato Plots Move into “Internet of Lights”

As an executive at Philips, Gerard Harbers developed technology that helped expand the use of LED lighting in TV monitors, streetlights, and outdoor signs. But when it came to the LEDs in his own home, he couldn’t stand the quality of light.

Motivated by his own experience, he co-founded Xicato to create light from LEDs that matches the quality of halogens, the industry’s gold standard. The company developed an LED light source—an electronic component about the size of two stacked quarters—that goes into light fixtures used in museums, stores, and other public places where the quality of light matters.

Now, the San Jose, CA-based company is moving into so-called smart lighting, in a bet that lights will become the communications and control hubs for high-tech, smart buildings, particularly in retail.

In the first quarter next year, Xicato plans to introduce LED modules that include both an LED light source and a Bluetooth wireless communications chip. After that, the company plans to introduce a package that includes an LED light, sensors, and a microcontroller that can be programmed via an API. The programmable light fixture will enable new applications, such as tracking consumers in stores or adjusting the color of light in stores and other public spaces.

Both consumers and businesses are upgrading to LED lighting because they’re energy-efficient and last many years. But most LED makers have focused on low costs over light quality. A Department of Energy review of solid-state lighting last year found that the color rendering index (CRI)—a measure of how accurately light displays colors—of consumer LED bulbs is average, about the same as compact fluorescent lights.

Xicato’s LED chips have a CRI of about 95 or a higher on a scale of 100, nearly matching halogens, says Harbers, Xicato’s chief technology officer. It gets that higher quality by using three separate materials called phosphors to precisely tune the blue light of LED chips. Lower-cost LEDs use only one phosphor to filter the blue LED light to look white.

Gerard Harbers“We took it as a challenge to make LED lights that have the same color quality of incandescent or halogen lights. But it was much, much harder to do than we thought,” says Harbers (pictured). The company was founded in 2007 and has been funded by its three founders and Mohr Davidow Ventures but doesn’t disclose how much it’s raised to date.

It thinks smart lighting technology will get a good reception among its clients. Stores and museums are seeking ways to use lights for location-based data services or to improve the shopping experience, says Joanna Brace, the company’s executive vice president of marketing.

A storeowner could draw attention to one part of the story by sending more focused light onto it or create a dramatic scene to catch consumer interest. The color of light, or how much white or yellow it has in it, can be adjusted to create a different mood for the evening versus day or for different seasons.

“Once you introduce controls, you can do much more in a store than just provide light,” she says.

A number of retailers are already experimenting with iBeacon and other wireless lighting systems to gather indoor location data on consumers. With iBeacon, low-energy Bluetooth transmitters communicate with consumers’ smartphone apps. A museum, for instance, could provide background information on displays, or stores could provide special offers to people’s phones.

The challenge with this model is that these individual beacons are battery powered, so they’ll need to be maintained, and owners may need to set up separate wireless networks for the beacons to communicate with phones, says Harbers.

“Our proposition is: why don’t you integrate all the communications and sensors into the light? Why not have every light act as a Bluetooth beacon because you already have the power and lights are everywhere,” he says.

The advantage of LED lighting is that it’s electronic, so adding sensors for motion, daylight levels, and networking chips is relatively straight forward, he says. Much like smartphones eventually included GPS sensors, many commercial LEDs will include both the lights and other electronics, Harbers predicts.

Xicato's LED are put into fixtures used in places where light quality is important. Pictured here is the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey in London.

Xicato’s LED are put into fixtures used in places where light quality is important. Pictured here is the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey in London.

He’s certainly not alone in believing that connected light fixtures should provide the sensing and intelligence for smart buildings. A number of lighting startups are developing LED fixtures or controls that effectively combine distributed computing with lighting.

Boston-based Digital Lumens, which has a partnership to combine their controls and software with Xicato’s LEDs, makes a lighting fixture for warehouses that can be networked and managed from a Web-based software application. Sunnyvale, CA-based Sensity makes a system to convert commercial lighting to networked LEDs. Similarly, Sunnyvale, CA-based Enlighted makes sensors and software to network office lights of all kinds to improve the efficiency of lighting.

As Xicato, which saw its revenue grow 43 percent last year, gets into sensors and wireless lighting, it’ll likely compete with other smart lighting startups and established commercial lighting companies, such as GE, Philips, and Cree, another LED maker which has started to make its own bulbs and fixtures.

Many LED lighting companies are targeting business customers because they can earn back the money they invest in LEDs and controls through energy savings. Harbers, though, hopes that the price of LED with a high CRI, which are more expensive, will come down and be accessible in the consumer market.

“We’re starting in the professional space but I want to develop high-quality lights that you can afford,” he says.

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