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Baltimore company wins grant for solid state lighting innovation

Pixelligent Technologies, LLC recently effectuated a $1.25 million competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop high-efficiency organic light-emitting-diode technology, a company representative said. Of Pixelligent’s total $27 million capitalization, $9 million, or about 33 percent, comes from federal grants.

Pixelligent Technologies, LLC lab where the Baltimore company manufactures nanocrystals
Pixelligent Technologies, LLC

Organic light-emitting diodes, known as OLEDs, and light-emitting diodes, known as LEDs, are part of an expanding type of lighting technology, often called solid state lighting, which produces light more efficiently than conventional incandescent and compact florescent lighting.

An August 2014 report prepared for the Department of Energy estimated energy cost savings of $1.8 billion last year from use of solid state lighting.

The various technologies that comprise solid state lighting differ. But they all rely on light-emitting diodes to produce light through the electronic excitation of a semiconductor material. Light-emitting diodes also have applications in flat panel displays, optical components and films.

Pixelligent, a Maryland company, manufactures and produces advanced materials that can be used in solid state lighting. Pixelligent is working on a process that will increase the light-emitting efficiency of various materials by applying tiny clusters of atoms, called nanocrystals, to the material’s surface. Nanocrystals are strong and clear, and they increase light and heat efficiency.

Pixelligent’s story illustrates the role the federal government can play to promote research and new technologies through public-private funding, particularly for capital intensive projects, such as developing more efficient lighting, where there exists a public interest to support those new technologies.

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Craig Bandes is an entrepreneur, not a scientist. Bandes has over 20 years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur and investor. He builds companies in the technology, defense and professional services industries.

Bandes has been Chief Executive Officer and President of Pixelligent since 2009, a year after he helped the company emerge successfully from a reorganization process and refocused its product strategy.

The company received an $8 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) under a now-defunct program – the Technology Innovation Program (TIP), just as the company started to search for credibility after its bankruptcy reorganization.

That $8 million grant in 2010 not only provided a source of funding, it helped Pixelligent establish credibility with private investors. They started taking a closer look at the technology, Bandes said. Pixelligent has raised nearly $18 million in equity funding since 2008 when Bandes joined the company.

“You’ve heard a lot about the government picking winners and losers. The NIST TIP program supported winners,” Bandes said. “You needed to show up with a large commercial partner.”

Pixelligent has received other federal grants for work on cutting edge solid state lighting research. Since 2009, when it reorganized, the company has been awarded over $9 million in federal grants, and it has entered into numerous product-development partnerships with technology leaders and Fortune 100 companies.

From Pixelligent’s birth in 2000 until 2011, the company operated out of the University of Maryland’s incubator program for technology companies. Pixelligent now employees 32 people at a state-of-the art pilot manufacturing facility in Baltimore.

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In June 2014, the Department of Energy announced that it had awarded $10.5 million in competitive grants to nine solid state lighting technology projects. Pixelligent’s work to improve the “light extraction efficiency of OLED lighting devices,” was one of the nine projects.

Pixellegent completed the paperwork to obtain the grant award last week, a company spokesperson said. This Pixellegent grant award represents only a fraction of the financial incentives the Department of Energy and other federal agencies provide each year to promote solid state lighting and related research and technology.

During the past several years, the Department of Energy has funded about $25 million a year for solid state lighting projects and consumer education.

When Pixelligent’s novel Zirconia nanomaterials are incorporated into end-products, the ability for light and heat to move through various materials without losing energy increases.

Zirconia nanocrystals have many possible applications: lubricants, solar panels and solid state lighting to name a few. These nanocrystals increase the light emitting efficiency of various materials. In other words, more light escapes through the material and so uses less energy.

A company spokesperson said, “Pixelligent achieves the highest quality dispersions through a combination of proprietary nanocrystal synthesis, where the size and shape of its nanocrystals and capping methodologies are controlled.”

“Pixelligent’s capping methodology enables it to control the surface chemistry of the nanocrystal, where materials are chemically bonded to the nanocrystals that are compatible with the target solvents, polymers and oils. This capping process is one of the key reasons Pixelligent’s nanocomposites are highly loaded, perfectly dispersed, and fully scalable.”

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Today, OLEDs operate with about a 25-35 percent efficiency in terms of the ability of light emitted from the diodes to get out. By using nanocrystals, Pixelligent wants to increase that efficiency to 50-70 percent.

LEDs for lighting already have an established market – about $25-$27 billion – while OLEDs for lighting have the potential to grow to about $2 billion by 2019, Bandes said. It is one reason government grants are so important to technology. That five-year pay out period might be too long for private investors, Bandes said.

In DOE’s June 2014 announcement of its competitive grant award to Pixelligent, a DOE press release said, Pixelligent is working “[to] develop a novel internal light extraction (ILE) design to improve the light extraction efficiency of OLED lighting devices to 70% without negatively impacting the device voltage, efficacy, or angular color dependence. The innovative structure is based on proprietary sub-10 nm ZrO2 nanocrystals as a high refractive index additive for polymer systems.”

Pixelligent is working on processes that could make energy more efficient. But it takes money and time. The government has had a role in supporting this technology.

When we talk over the telephone about federal grants and their role in supporting LED and OLED technology, Bandes is emphatic that grants help spur innovation. “Without [DOE funding] companies like Pixelligent would not be able to develop next generation lighting technology,” he said.

“We are able to put our nanocrystal dispersions onto OLED panels as well as LED chips and increase the index of refraction to get more light out,” Bandes said.

Federal grants help companies that research and develop critical technology programs get to market. In four or five years, this work could contribute to breakthroughs in light efficiency, as well as other applications, Bandes said.