New ideas in lighting get closer to market

Photos by Rick Friedman/New York Times/NYT

WOBURN — Ever since government regulations began phasing out the traditional light bulb in 2012, the once-simple visit to the lighting aisle has become an exercise in navigating a dizzying array of choices and terminologies, especially for new kinds of compact fluorescents and LEDs.

Now, those choices are about to become even more complicated. Two startup companies are poised to begin selling bulbs that use entirely different technologies — one borrowed from heavy industry and the other from old-fashioned televisions — but meet the new energy standards.

Whether they can capture customers who remain stubbornly wedded to incandescent light is anybody’s guess. But that both have come this far is an indication of how unsettled the consumer lighting market remains, despite years of promotion for the new energy-saving options.


“It’s going to be a really long putt to try to replace the incandescent,” said Mark Rea, director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “People hate change of any kind.”

Indeed, incandescent bulbs — whether leftover store inventory of standard lights or halogen models that meet the new regulations, which went fully into effect in January — outsell other types by far at big-box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, lighting executives there say.

At a small demonstration lab just outside Boston, a glass artist in dark goggles blows specially designed tubes, one tiny component of a new bulb to be called Finally when it makes it to store shelves. A few yards away, a scientist examines multicolored graphs representing the spectrum of colors the bulb emits. And over in a corner, dozens of the lights glow upside down, part of the company’s internal quality control.

It is all part of the quest of John Goscha, who already has one successful startup company under his belt, to build a better light bulb. Goscha, 30, started a custom golf-club business in high school and founded IdeaPaint, which allows most surfaces to function as dry-erase boards, as an undergraduate at Babson College.


But IdeaPaint grew up, he said, and about three years ago he was eager to do something new.

Around that time, a friend mentioned the incandescent phaseout, of which he had been unaware. Unhappy as a consumer with compact fluorescents and LEDs, he said, he decided to pursue making an alternative.

“I thought, ‘I don’t really want those, and there have got to be other people who don’t want those either,’ ” he said.

Looking for the solution, he began attending conferences and meetings and enlisted the advice of Victor Roberts, a former General Electric engineer who eventually joined the venture. On a long flight to Hong Kong, the two talked about induction, a technology that has a wide range of applications, including electric motors in home appliances and construction cranes, because it is long-lasting.

But it had not yet been widely adapted for home use in lighting because it was difficult and expensive to fit the electronics needed for bright, omnidirectional light inside a regular bulb.

But with the advent of smaller transistors and other advances, the company, which has hired engineers from established light-makers like Osram Sylvania and Philips, shrank the apparatus to a 3-inch antenna wrapped in copper wire. That creates a magnetic field inside the bulb that prods mercury to produce ultraviolet light, which in turn creates visible light when it interacts with a special phosphor coating the glass.


The result, to be manufactured in India, has almost all of its regulatory approvals. It can be disposed of in landfills despite its mercury content because the amount of metal is minuscule and in solid, not liquid, form. It also has received approval from the Federal Communications Commission because the antenna is technically a radio receiver, albeit a weak one.

Goscha plans to sell the bulb for $8, making it competitive with some of the cheapest LEDs on the market.

But although it has shown enough promise to have attracted about $19 million from investors, including some of Goscha’s Babson professors, and interest from big-box retailers, its success is not yet assured.

Take, for instance, the Vu1, a bulb that was supposed to come to market more than three years ago. It was available for a time on the Lowe’s website but had production problems and was withdrawn. With new manufacturing operations in China rather than the Czech Republic, said William B. Smith, the company’s chief executive, it is only now ready to begin shipping to stores.

“This is all self-inflicted self-hatred,” Smith said jokingly about the company’s missteps, which included losing Wall Street backing after missing too many deadlines. “Whenever you move a technology from one country to another, it never goes as planned.”

Smith said he was largely financing the company himself while it struggled to get on better footing.

The Vu1, which will be available first for use in recessed fixtures, uses a technology like that of cathode ray tubes in televisions, a “state-of-the-art 1940s technology,” Smith said, in which electrons hit a cocktail of phosphors on the glass, which then glows.