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Lumencor shines a transcendent light on a sustainable path to success

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Back in 2007, a fledgling company took the leap and relocated to Oregon from California, bringing with them a revolutionary product idea and a desire to live and work in a state that could provide them with the best chance to see that idea blossom and thrive.

Today, nine years later that company Lumencor Inc. manufactures its innovative light engine in a 30,000 square foot facility in Beaverton, turning the long dominant, mercury-based lamp world on its head, with not only a superior light source, but one that is significantly more energy efficient and better for the environment, because it doesn’t use mercury (or a bunch of other toxic materials) at all.

To fully conceptualize this you need to erase the image of a traditional light bulb out of your mind, because this light engine is not remotely like a bulb. The light engine features “instant on/off excitation” via electronic control so that energy is consumed (and this is the really cool part) only when illumination is needed.

Lumencor Inc co-founder Claudia Jaffe

Lumencor Inc co-founder Claudia Jaffe

Recently we visited Lumencor for a chat with one of its co-founders, Claudia Jaffe, to find out more about the company, its technology, and its exciting potential as an enabler for even more impactful discoveries and breakthroughs in the bio-tech and manufacturing arenas.

Jaffe, who earned her doctorate in Bioanalytical Chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh, is an inventor in nearly all of Lumencor’s patents. She is Lumencor’s Executive Vice President and oversees new business development as well as sales and marketing.

Her husband Steve Jaffe is her fellow co-founder and CEO, so the company retains many of the close knit and humanized characteristics of a family-run business, despite its growth to 60 employees (and still growing) scattered around this large facility.

A better match of business, place and capital

We started by asking Jaffe about their move from California to Oregon in 2007, and their subsequent investment by the Oregon Angel Fund (OAF). It was the very first investment by the then fledgling fund.

“We made a conscious decision to leave California and move to Portland. It is recognized as one of three or four top optics centers in the country and it was an entrée to a whole network of talent in the technical community as well as in finance, legal, marketing, all kinds of services that you need to foster and grow your business. (It’s) a place where we could develop hardware with access to optics, electronics, software and mechanics expertise.

(In Oregon) there’s a desire to build the biotech industry and that’s the market we serve. The investment community was a better match for our initial need than in Silicon Valley. That’s how we found Oregon Angel Fund, and Eric Rosenfeld (the co-founder and manager) has been a tremendous supporter since day one, since we first came scouting and met with him.”

Armed with that initial financing, Jaffe and her team went about developing and selling the technology in suburban Portland. But as with any startup and with any new technology, there had to be an underlying problem they were trying to solve. How did they approach this question, and the even more intriguing question – why hadn’t it been solved before?

“We build lighting that solves certain problems that are just fundamental to LEDs (Light-emitting diodes), but we came to this problem with an integrator’s approach to a solution. We said, ‘We’ll build a modular product so that if the customer needs only red and green light, we can satisfy that. Essentially we have a tool box and can pick and choose aspects of the lighting that specifically suit a given application.’

As a business proposition, there has been a big obstacle to solving this problem. Lighting manufacturers like to build a single product, for example a lamp based on a bulb. Then they just find many, many wall sockets in which to plug. That’s not our approach; we’re integrators.

What we do is talk to the customer, typically an equipment manufacturer, like a microscope company. We ask, ‘What are you trying to solve? What is the technical obstacle? What does the instrument look like? What does it need in terms of the color spectrum, spectral purity, brightness, fast switching time?’ It’s all of these technical performance traits that go into tailoring the light to suit the need. We call it “Tailored Illumination” because we offer control over the spectral, spatial and temporal aspects of the light. In the past lighting couldn’t be so carefully controlled in large part because it was mostly in the form of a simple bulb.

87725-5506057So when you say, ‘Why wasn’t this problem solved before?’, I have to answer because there were so many different aspects, both business and technical, that needed a customized solution, one tailored to the equipment manufacturers’ needs; and those needs vary. Today we have over 100 customers – equipment manufacturers, many individual researchers, labs, hospitals, universities. We offer off-the-shelf products for a larger group of customers but for the smaller group with large volume needs, like the equipment manufacturers, we build a unique product for every one of them. Not a lot of manufacturers of hardware want to do that.”

That begged the question – why don’t they?

“They want to build one kind of lamp. Again, I think our novelty is that we’re very solutions-oriented. You hear it all the time, but we truly are. We tailor our products for the equipment needs, the equipment specifications, and we’re very nimble in manufacturing, very modular in manufacturing and we’ve always had that posture. It’s one thing to impose that after you’ve built the first product, but it’s another thing to envision product with that in mind first.”

Jaffe then spoke about this “old” technology, the good old light bulb, and why Lumencor’s solution is better.

“Lamp manufacturers think about a bulb, and that bulb provides white light. It provides a lot of light in spectral regions that aren’t useful.

(So we said), let’s build white light not from one bulb, one source, but from six different colors as six unique sources, as an example. And if you only need three different colors, we’ll just give you those. There’s no wasted light, because the spectrum that is provided is based on the instrument need or the analysis need as the customer defines it.

Further, it’s electronically controlled so it runs off a DC power supply, not (traditional) AC, much quieter. And it’s electronically pulsed, so you can trigger it on or gate it on and off. When it’s off, it’s because the lights are truly off, not because it’s blocked. All that savings in energy and heat and spectral purity, it’s just a completely different posture for how to provide the light.”

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An enabler of transformative discoveries and inventions

With this better light source, Lumencor becomes an enabler of some grander discoveries and inventions. Jaffe elaborated on this, and those things that have made her sit back in her chair and say, “If it wasn’t for us, this wouldn’t have happened”.

“Well, if it wasn’t for us, some of the kinds of experiments that you can do today wouldn’t be happening. We are truly enabling drug discovery, as one example. Let’s say you want to identify drugs that interact with cells in a certain way. What’s the best way to do that? Watch the cells. But for the most part, the biology hasn’t been done that way – historically you would have a sample of tissue and put it on a microscope slide or create a milkshake literally of cells and add things to it and then test that.

But with our products, the light is kinder, gentler, less disruptive to actual real-time cellular function. Because the light can actually probe at video rates, real-time events in cells, you can literally watch cellular events that you didn’t use to be able to. Tumors are cells gone wild, and with our lighting, you can actually watch the cells replicate in real time and do so in the presence and absence of some potential drug. You cannot do that with a simple lamp.

It’s really interrogating the cell of a tissue in a way that allows you to optically discriminate what you couldn’t see just with the naked eye. This is enabled by the process of fluorescence. Its possible to impose fluorescence in cells or in tissues, to label them if you will with light reactive tags, that allow you to discriminate at a molecular level what’s happening to that biology. The quality of the light very much influences how well you can detect those cellular events.”

A commitment to sustainability

The other side benefit of the technology is its sustainability and environmental friendliness, attributes that Jaffe and Lumencor have leveraged into an overall “green” approach that extends all the way to the packing materials and the building it occupies. Jaffe explains,

lumencor“We built this company, used solid-state components and never used mercury in anything that we ever built. We’re lucky, in that our light engines are relatively low power consuming, they don’t generate heat, and they’re all clean tech. We’ve only ever shipped in recyclable materials and it’s a green kind of process and philosophy we use throughout our organization. It’s a value that we have, a value that the whole organization has, and we just are always thinking about that when we start new processes, ‘How can we do it in a way that is consistent with that value?’

But what about the higher costs to live up to this philosophy?

“The money proposition is very short-sighted. I don’t think there’s any question that, in the long term, it is cheaper to do with a “green” solution. Yes, for the initial investment it may be a little more expensive to buy “sustainable” product. But the overall impact has to include costly waste disposal, long term energy consumption, instrument down-time during maintenance, replacement parts. Plus it goes back to how passionate are you about (being green) – is it really a value for you? I have to believe the scientific community that supports life sciences values this too.“

Following your passion

Lastly, nine years on in Oregon, Jaffe offered advice to those folks that that are thinking about taking the kind of big technological leaps that they took, but perhaps are reluctant because it just seems too hard, even though they have a great idea.

“Isn’t that where all the joy and value comes from, doing something that’s hard? And I also think you have got to follow your passion. I have two little girls, they’re 12 and 14, and I tell them that all the time. ‘Figure out what you love to do and then just do a lot of it. Whether it’s mathematics, arts, music or history, whatever it is, if you have passion and volume, you just discover things more deeply and do them more thoroughly. Do it intensely for a long period of time and expertise will come.’ And that’s what brings you to good work, right?

Before this job, I hadn’t worked for any organization, (I had many different jobs), for longer than two years. I’ve been here nine years and I can’t wait to get to work. We have a very respectful work environment, the people are all great and we know we’re doing valuable work. That makes it much easier to be committed.”

The story of Lumencor epitomizes the promise of Oregon entrepreneurship and its unique take on the role of people, place and the environment, as well as the important role of angel funds like OAF, and the other Oregonians who are willing to invest risk capital to help turn that promise into many successes.

It’s a story that shines an altogether different light than what comes out of their Beaverton factory, but it’s a very bright and illuminating light nonetheless.

To learn more about Lumencor, visit its website at lumencor.com.

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Terry St. Marie

Terry "Starbucker" St. Marie, when he isn't working with Mitch & Rick on Built Oregon, writes on his own site, TerryStarbucker.com, and is also a business consultant, Director of Finance of PDX retailer/record label Tender Loving Empire, investor in the Oregon Angel Fund, chairman of the board of Social Ventures Portland, and a general man about town (and espresso bars)