The office of Pacific Light Technologies in the Portland State Business Accelerator building is a hive of intensity. In a cramped room without any reception area, workstations are aligned in tight rows, and many employees don’t look up from their tasks when the office door creaks open.
One of the founders of the company, Juanita Kurtin, and current CEO Ron Nelson emerge from the back row of desks and head toward a small conference room across the hallway. Kurtin, 38, an Intel alumni and previous employee at the Intel-funded SpectraWatt solar company, started PLT after SpectraWatt went bankrupt in 2011. She felt SpectraWatt’s research in quantum dots — tiny nanocrystals that glow when stimulated by a source such as ultraviolet light — was too good to let languish.
Nelson, a seasoned veteran of at least two successful startups, is a 2010 transplant to Oregon from the Bay Area. Nelson says he was skeptical about nanotechnology. But after he saw Kurtin’s pitch on how PLT dots could make LED lighting soft, white and pleasing — and less expensive — he led the due-diligence investment team for OAF, then stepped down to become PLT’s CEO.
Another employee brings in a box, bigger than a shoebox but smaller than a breadbox, affixed with two dome-shaped lights on its top. One of the lights is a standard LED whose glass cover has a heavy-metal-based phosphor coating — the same type used in fluorescent lights. The other light, which Kurtin turns on with a small knob, is like a softer, warmer and still incredibly bright version of the first one. On the inside of this light’s small glass dome is a coating of nanocrystal quantum dots that make the second light more pleasant to the eyes than the first. PLT believes its coating will not contain expensive “rare earth” metals and will be cheaper than phosphors to produce and sell. Currently, a 100-watt LED bulb retails for more than $50.
Nelson is quick to say PLT expects to produce its quantum-dot coating in marketable amounts this year and generate revenue by 2014. PLT has surmounted quantum dots’ reliability issues for use directly on LEDs, and will “soon” begin production, he adds, without specifying where.
Oregon, Nelson says, has been good to PLT. “As a transplant from Silicon Valley, the startup climate is better than I thought it would be. Within 60 days from my first email about PLT, we managed to get the team together, get money, buy equipment for pennies on the dollar from SpectraWatt, and get going.”
Nelson and Kurtin are keenly aware that in spite of PLT’s strong patent portfolio, a good team and trade secrets, the startup is in a very crucial time. “We have three major competitors making coatings for similar applications. It is survival of the fittest,” Nelson says. “A lot of what will happen can’t be predicted. It can be a great technology and be too early or too late, miss its window or somebody just out-executes.”
Nelson doesn’t try to peer into the company’s future, keeping what he calls “necessary blinders” on to focus on the formidable challenge of getting the company’s coatings to market.
“Even with a sexy technology, you have to solve real problems and build a business based on what your customers really need. While I like the challenge of creating an economically sustainable company and making lighting better across the world, it’s also a bit like playing the roulette wheel.”
He acknowledges that venture capitalists are always nervous about having their investments far away, and he has firsthand experience trying to manage an unsuccessful Pasadena, Calif. company that was distant from its Silicon Valley investors. But ONAMI got PLT off the ground with $250K of seed money, and Nelson hopes to be in Oregon for the long run.
“Those dollars really powered this thing,” he says. “It was probably the difference right there of PLT staying in Oregon and making it or having our technology wither on the vine.”