This startup wants to bring sunlight indoors & make you healthier

If your home won’t fit more windows or a skylight, perhaps this is the next best thing. A startup called Sunn has developed a programmable LED light fixture that modulates light to mimic the sun’s rays throughout the day and time of year, potentially making its users feel healthier.

Sunn began as a project at Cornell University two years ago and the team has developed algorithms that control the quality and brightness of its LED light to match the season and hour. The mini sun-looking fixture brightens up in the morning when you set the wakeup time and mellows out to a yellow glow at night as you wind down to the time you’ve set for bed. It stays brighter for longer when the days of summer stretch out, and shorter during the winter months.

Sunn at noon

You can change the settings to suit your needs or desires, and you can even request to have the light change as if you were in another corner of the world. For example, you could program the light as if you were in the Bahamas even though you are in Norway on a wintry day. The technology also learns your habits and adjusts the light settings accordingly.

“Our goal is to create lighting that you wouldn’t have to think about. You install it, and it automatically figures out what it needs to give you the healthiest light possible,” said Andrew Vaslas, Sunn’s chief technology officer.

So what’s the connection between lighting and health? Research shows that the amount of light a person is exposed to affects a person’s circadian rhythms, which can change hormone releases and can dictate how well a person stays awake, falls asleep and performs other functions. Disruption of these rhythms has been connected to obesity, diabetes, depression and other illnesses, according to the National Institutes of Health. Here’s something for the insomniacs to think about: too much light can reduce the production of a hormone called melatonin that helps us fall asleep.

The ability to digitally control the intensity and color of LED lighting makes the technology a good match for recreating the effect of sunlight, and doing that at a high level is a subject of research by major LED lighting makers, including Philips and Cree, both of which run websites that tout the health benefits of their LED lights. Both companies also are experimenting with lights that they believe could help hospital patients recover more quickly and comfortably.

Sunn's CEO, John Ciecholewski

Sunn’s CEO, John Ciecholewski

Sunn has been running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for its product launch, and it’s already exceeded the initial goal of $50,000. If it hits $90,000, then it plans to incorporate weather data into the software. That addition will create more nuanced lighting changes to resemble more closely what you would experience outdoors in real time, Vaslas said. A Sunn’s LED light will turn down slightly to reflect the passing cloud, for instance.

Hitting even higher fundraising goals will allow the startup to add features that will measure light exposure that each user experiences, based on how close he or she is to the light at different times. The system could also explain how that exposure amount might or might not help the person stay awake or fall asleep.

While LED lighting technology in general has improved tremendously in the past decade, it’s still not good enough to truly mimic the full spectrum of the sunlight. Sunn’s team has tried different LED combinations before settling on one that is pretty close, based on simulation tests, Vaslas said. He declined to disclose the makers of the LED chips or the manufacturer that will be assembling the chips and other components into the lighting fixture.

Honda Smart Home with dynamic LED lighting

Honda Smart Home with dynamic LED lighting

Sunn has designed the fixture to be round because, well, that’s the shape of the sun. There are two models, one with a diameter of 19 inches and another one with 24 inches. To give you a comparison, the 19-inch version is about as bright as four 60-watt incandescent bulbs. Turning on the 24-inch model is like using seven 60-watt bulbs.

The downside is that the Sunn LED lights are pretty pricy. Regular retail prices for the two models are $349 and $449, Vaslas said. Those who support the startup’s Kickstarter campaign can get those lights at a discount. If all goes well, the company will start shipping the lights in April of next year.

Because the light fixtures aren’t cheap, consumers aren’t likely to install one in every room of their homes. The bedroom and home office might be two popular spots since people spend a good amount of time in those rooms.

Long-term, Sunn would like develop its technology to target hospitals, office and other commercial buildings and add more data, such as energy consumption, as part of its service. “We’d love to build more natural experiences indoors,” Vaslas said.

Meet Generate Capital, a new way to fund energy projects

By now, most of us know the story of how Silicon Valley’s love affair with “cleantech” didn’t turn out so well. As of the end of 2014, most VCs no longer do energy tech investing (beyond software-based deals), and only a small handful of groups are trying to tackle energy investing and entrepreneurship in new ways (like M37 or Hawaii’s Energy Excelerator).

But I’ve just learned about one of the more interesting new energy investing projects out there, from entrepreneurial investors Scott Jacobs, co-founder of EFW Partners and McKinsey’s cleantech practice, and Jigar Shah, the former founding CEO of SunEdison. Called Generate Capital, the team is providing capital for energy, water and food infrastructure assets using the solar-as-a-service model of financing that Shah pioneered at SunEdison.

Here’s how it works: Generate Capital will put up funds — between $2 million to $20 million — to get a resource infrastructure project installed. For example, a city might want to upgrade to LED lights, a university might want to heat its water with solar or a sports complex might want to install a new, energy-efficient heat pump. Generate Capital owns the asset (the heat pump, for example), and as the infrastructure delivers reliable revenue over the years (the city pays its monthly lighting bill) and potentially saves the customer money (a smaller energy bill), Generate Capital makes a return off of the cash flow.

This type of financing — “infrastructure as a service” — has its roots in the solar-as-a-service funding model, which has been a huge breakthrough for the solar panel industry. Solar developers like SolarCity raise funds to pay for the installation of the solar system and then charge customers for the energy. Most of the growth in the business of putting solar panels on residential rooftops is being done with these types of financing deals.

Generate Capital isn’t interested in the solar PV market, which is already maturing, filled with competitors and offering lower rates of return these days. It’s instead focused on the variety of under-installed, but already proven, clean and efficient energy, water and food technologies. It’s got to be a commodity tech, or getting close to a commodity tech, already. So no next-gen biofuel plants for these guys.

The thesis behind this strategy is that a lot of the needed technology for new energy infrastructure is already available, but these industries just need new types of financing. These are projects that would be deemed way too small for traditional banks to look at, let alone back.

Industrial HVAC systems

Industrial HVAC systems

While Generate Capital might sound like a fund, it’s not. It’s a balance sheet business and it closed a Series A round in September from several family offices, like Ceniarth led by Greg Neichin (formerly of the Cleantech Group), investor Jason Fish, and others. With the Series A, plus debt that it will raise, Generate Capital plans to finance deploying hundreds of millions of dollars in hard resource infrastructure assets. The company’s investors get monthly dividends from the cash flow, and down the road Generate could exit by going public or getting acquired.

The company plans to also have a “developer in residence” program, which provides a way for the small companies working with tech like LEDs, battery farms or heat pumps to work with Generate. Shah told me he wants to bring the same kind of organization and standardization that has been created in the solar PV industry to these various resource infrastructure deals. Before Generate, Shah was a managing partner of Clean Feet Investors, which was doing similar infrastructure funding work.

solar panels

Another core thesis behind Generate Capital is that the world will increasingly be resource-constrained and will need a build-out of more efficient and cleaner infrastructure around energy, food and water. There will be 10 billion people on the planet by 2050 and three billion new middle class consumers over the next 15 years, and they’ll be using more and more of these resources.

One of Generate Capital’s advantages could be that hardly anyone else is doing this, so it could potentially tap into a vast unmet need. The partners have been doing these deals and maintained these core theses for years, so they strongly believe in what they’re doing.

It’s still early days for Generate. The founders have been incubating the company for about a year, have a few pilot deals done and are closing on some of their first asset deals now. Generate will have to ramp up its pipeline of projects to start making returns.

Images courtesy of DeWAR.ie, Martin industry, Flickr Creative Commons.

Updated at 10:33AM, PST December 4th, to clarify that Greg Neichin isn’t a personal investor in Generate, but he’s the Director of single family office Ceniarth, which invested in Generate.

GE launches a $15 connected bulb for Wink. That’s seriously cheap!

gelight
As part of the fanfare around the launch GE-backed Quirky launching Wink as a separate company dedicated to the connected home, GE is opening up pre-orders for a connected light bulb that will work with the Wink app and only costs $14.97. For a connected, white-light LED that is a crazy low price tag. The upcoming Belkin, LG and Philips Hue light bulbs that will be white-light only are between $30 and $40 per bulb and the colorful connected bulbs are in the $60 to $100 range. TCP has connected white bulbs that are between $27-$33 per bulb, and are on the market today. The GE lights will be in Home Depot stores in the fall, so I can’t wait to see how they work.