Consumers spend billions on mattresses and pillows in their quest for a decent night’s sleep. So Scott Almquist figures we’ll gladly spring for a few new light bulbs.
Almquist is chief executive of Brilli, a Boston-based startup that has just begun selling new types of LED bulbs designed to be used at different times of day: one that more closely re-creates daylight and is supposed to make us more alert when we’re awake and working, and a softer version that has less blue light for when it’s late and we’re trying to wind down and relax.
Known as human-centric lighting, it is inspired by research into how the various wavelengths of light regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, the biological clock that prepares us to work during the day, then relax in the evening. The bright, blue-tinted light of morning tends to make humans more alert, while dimmer, warmer shades prepare us for sleep.
“Light is the most critical synchronizer of our internal clock. It controls many physiological functions in our brains and in our bodies,” said Charles Czeisler, chief of the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
This corner of the lighting market is already a $1 billion industry and growing, but currently, nearly all the money is going into the lighting systems found in office buildings, hotels, and hospitals. Brilli looks to bring the idea to homes and apartments, with a line of bulbs and fixture upgrades, available for now only at the company’s website.
“There’s a big growing wave here,” said Almquist, “and we think we’re going to be at the top of it.”
Artificial light throws us out of sync. Modern humans spend nearly all their time indoors under artificial lights that are far dimmer than normal daylight, yet much brighter than natural evening light. As a result, “you’re getting too little light during the day and too much light during the evening,” said Brigham and Women’s neuroscientist Shadab Rahman, who serves as an adviser to Brilli. Poor office lighting can make workers less alert, while too much blue light at home makes it harder to wind down.
Scientists and engineers have devised a number of workarounds. For instance, Czeisler worked on a team that redesigned the lighting system on the International Space Station to help astronauts sleep better. Here on Earth, a consortium called the International WELL Building Institute has developed a set of healthy lighting standards for commercial buildings.
Meanwhile, smartphone and tablet makers have tried to offer a measure of relief to consumers, with blue light filters that impart a warmer, softer appearance to touchscreens during evening use. But research from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggests these filters are of limited value in helping users relax because the light they produce is still too bright. Besides, adjusting a phone’s screen does nothing for the lighting in your bedroom.
That’s Brilli’s department. The company makes two types of LED bulbs with brightness equivalent to old-school incandescent bulbs of 60, 75, or 100 watts, only with much lower power consumption.
One type of Brilli bulb amps up the blue end of the spectrum, to make the light resemble true daylight and increase alertness. They’re intended for use in a kitchen or home office. The other kind delivers much less of the blue spectrum and is intended for use in the hours before bedtime, perhaps in the living room or bedroom.
A four-pack of Brilli bulbs sells for $40 to $50. The company doesn’t sell individual bulbs because a user must change all the bulbs in a room to get the full effect. Each bulb has a “lifetime” warranty; Brilli chairman John Goscha said that bulbs are designed to last 15 years, longer than most people occupy the same home or apartment.
Brilli also makes a line of ceiling light fixtures that can be adjusted with a dimmer switch to account for the time of the day. Priced between $30 and $75, the fixtures produce brilliant light with plenty of blue when turned up, then cut back the blue light when dimmed. There’s also a $295 wall-mounted mirror for use when applying makeup. It lets the user adjust the light quality, to see how makeup will look on a sunny street or in a dimly lit restaurant.
Brilli began in 2012 as Lucidity Lights Inc., which made lights based on a technology developed by famed inventor Nikola Tesla. Sold under the brand name Finally, the company’s lights were offered at Staples and Costco, among other retailers.
But Finally bulbs cost about $25 at a time when the prices for LED bulbs were plummeting. “We were manufacturing really a super-premium product,” said Almquist. “It was now competing in a category where the bottom had fallen out.”
Backed by a $50 million investment round led by Brian Kelley, the former Keurig Green Mountain chief executive, the company developed a new line of low-cost LED bulbs which promise to deliver healthier illumination.
“It lasts forever and it improves the quality of your life immediately,” said one Brilli investor, Jack Egan of Egan Managed Capital.
But other light bulb makers have similar stories to tell. These include industry giant Signify, formerly known as Philips Lighting, which makes the Hue line of Internet-connected lighting products. Hue lights can be programmed to vary their light output throughout the day for improved alertness or better sleep.
But it’s not the competition that worries Egan. He’s more concerned that millions of consumers have never heard of human-centric lights, and don’t know why they should want them. “I would say our biggest competitor right now is the need to educate the customer population,” Egan said.