Nobel Prize goes to the inventors of blue LEDs, including a startup founder

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics will be awarded to three inventors — two Japanese and one American — who helped create blue light emitting diode (LED) technology. Blue LED semiconductors paved the way for energy-efficient white LED lighting and enabled LED lighting to get cheaper, produce more high-quality light and break into the mainstream. The scientists are Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan (who worked together at the University of Nagoya), and Shuji Nakamura of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Blue LED diagram, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation.

Blue LED diagram, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation.

The news highlights just how important LED lighting has become. Here’s how the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, which awards the prize, described the lighting shift:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century; the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps.[/blockquote]

In particular, the Academy highlighted the importance of LEDs to the off-grid developing world, pointing out that the 1.5 billion people who don’t have consistent access to the power grid can power long-lasting, energy-efficient LEDs with low-cost solar panels.

Silicon Valley followers might recognize at least one of the names from the announcement: Shuji Nakamura is a co-founder of LED lighting startup Soraa, which emerged in 2008 with venture capital backing from NEA and Khosla Ventures (it eventually raised over $100 million and brought in the Angeleno Group and NGEN). The company came out of so-called stealth in early 2012.

LED comparison, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation.

LED comparison, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation.

Blue LEDs are now a fundamental part of the LED lighting industry, so Soraa isn’t actually using Nakamura’s established tech for its fundamental innovation. Soraa’s bet is on using the semiconductor gallium nitride for the substrate part of the LED.

LEDs are usually made by putting gallium nitride onto sapphire or silicon carbide substrates, but Soraa’s light product places gallium nitride onto a gallium nitride substrate, which enables the core of the light itself to create better uniformity. In a factory tour back in 2012, Soraa’s then-CEO Eric Kim showed me an ultra high-quality and consistent LED light compared to competitors.

The company is now on its third generation of lighting products. Soraa says the combo is more cost-effective and can produce more light per lamp than the traditional methods.

LED chip, Image courtesy eike, Flickr Creative Commons

LED chip. Image courtesy of eike, Flickr Creative Commons

LED lighting startups are actually somewhat rare. That’s because LED manufacturing can be a high-capital business, and venture capitalists have moved away from investing hundreds of millions of dollars into early-stage energy tech companies. Soraa might not have emerged were it not for VCs’ willingness to back some of these companies back in 2007 and 2008.

The boom and bust cleantech VC cycle goes to show just how important fundamental research and government support is at universities. The Japanese researchers worked on the original blue LED chip tech at University of Nagoya, while Nakamura invented his part working with Japanese chemical company Nichia Chemicals.