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Seren raises £1.8M to make more efficient LEDs

12 Mar 2012

University of Sheffield spin-out developing process for brighter chips attracts venture funding after recent licensing deal.

Seren Photonics, a start-up company in the UK developing a way to make high-brightness LEDs emit light more efficiently, has raised £1.8 million in new funding that will support transfer of the technology to its commercial partners.

The funding round includes £1.1 million from New York-based cleantech investment specialist I2BF Global Ventures, alongside £0.7 million from existing investors Fusion IP and IP Group – both of which are based in the UK.

According to Seren, the additional funding will allow it to purchase capital equipment for pilot-scale LED development, as well as to set up a specialist engineering team to transfer the efficiency-enhancing process to high-volume manufacturing.

CEO Carl Griffiths told optics.org that the new money would enable the company to recruit two engineers and retain the services of University of Sheffield researchers as it worked with partners in India and China who are looking to adopt the process.

With three separate patent families detailing Seren’s technological approach currently in the process of being filed, its precise nature is being kept under wraps by the company. But Griffiths did tell optics.org that the “secret sauce” involves a sequence of post-epitaxy processing steps that boost light emission, rather than improve light extraction.

Promotional video by Seren Photonics/University of Sheffield:

Licensing deal
Last month, Seren agreed a deal with an undisclosed LED maker for the technology to be used on an exclusive basis for certain lighting applications in India. Griffiths says that although this deal was a contributing factor in I2BF’s investment decision, the venture firm has been attracted primarily by the potential of the technology itself.

Seren says that its approach has been shown to double the light emission of an LED chip, something that could go a long way towards reducing the cost of solid-state lighting. Although the average selling price of HB-LEDs has fallen dramatically over the past couple of years, high-quality LED-based lighting remains much more expensive than conventional bulbs.

If it can be successfully transferred to large-scale manufacturing with similar results to those claimed by the Seren team, the start-up’s technology could help to make solid-state lighting far more competitive than it is at present, and further penetrate the multi-billion-dollar market for general lighting.

Established GaN LED makers are already working on a number of different ways to reduce the critical cost-per-lumen metric that defines how expensive a light source is, for example through manufacturing on larger sapphire substrates.

Plessey, another UK firm, is among a number looking to adopt a large-scale silicon wafer platform to take advantage of both lower material costs and depreciated silicon semiconductor manufacturing fabs – with US-based Bridgelux expecting to begin producing LED chips on silicon in volume by early next year, and Osram also making good progress.

Joint-venture option
Griffiths said that it was difficult to predict exactly when LEDs made with Seren’s technology might become widely available, but hinted that this could also happen next year, depending on when its partners complete the installation of their manufacturing bases.

The CEO added that Seren was not restricting itself to the licensing business model, and that establishing a joint-venture with a manufacturing partner could be a preferred option in the longer term.

In a statement announcing the new funding, I2BF partner David Waserstein said: “We believe LEDs will play a large role in reducing energy intensity for a range of municipal and industrial users, and that Seren is well-positioned to help drive that growth due to the impact of its technology on both brightness and reduction of heat loss.”

I2BF’s other investments in the photonics area include Russia-based Solar Silicon, which is focused on reducing the cost of multi-crystalline silicon ingots used in solar cell production, and Prism Solar Technologies (PST). Based in Tucson, Arizona, PST has developed holographic optical films for concentrating photovoltaics (CPV) applications, and is planning a production scale-up in New York State.

Co-investor Fusion IP has signed long-term, exclusive rights to commercialize all intellectual property generated at both Sheffield and Cardiff universities. Along with IP Group, those two academic institutions represent the three largest Fusion IP shareholders.

Fusion IP’s portfolio includes Phase Focus, also based in Sheffield, which is developing a disruptive approach to microscopy and imaging using a “virtual lens”. According to the company this software-based approach is able to generate high-definition images of objects without the need for the high-quality lenses that usually account for a large chunk of the cost of high-performance microscopes.

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