All-star LED team quietly working on Blu-ray successors

Just as Blu-ray is picking up steam, two start-ups begin work on technologies that may replace one day replace it.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read

Blu-ray is finally getting some momentum in the market, and two secretive start-ups are already looking at ways to replace the standard, or at least retrofit it.

Kaai and Soraa are trying to develop lasers and LEDs that could, conceivably, replace conventional LEDs in the lighting market and serve as a standard for optical data storage, Ford Tamer, the newest partner at Khosla Ventures, said in an interview. The firm has invested in both companies.

Tamer didn't provide many details on the companies, but that's par for the Khosla Ventures course. The company is placing many investments in companies that are still in the exploratory and scientific discovery phase and thus wants to keep a lid on details. Tamer did, however, say that Kaai and Soraa are both interested in the lighting and data storage markets. (And if anyone can ferret clues out of the "aa" in both company names, send it along.)

Both companies will exploit gallium nitride, which is also the basis for existing blue LEDs and blue lasers, although the technologies at the two companies differ from each other. Blue lasers, used inside Blu-ray players, would be used in far more movie players and computers than they are seen in now, but they cost too much, said Tamer.

Shuji Nakamura
Shuji Nakamura UC Santa Barbara

"We will go after lasers first," he said.

What makes the companies intriguing are the founders Shuji Nakamura and Stephen DenBaars. Most Americans, even those in the tech industry, probably don't know Nakamura, but in Japan and some electrical engineering circles, he's a major celebrity.

Nakamura invented the blue LED in the early '90s while working for Nichia. When combined with a particular phosphor, blue LEDs produce white light. Energy-efficiency white light LEDs will likely begin to replace incandescent bulbs in the future. (Blue lasers, of course, are also used to store data on Blu-ray discs.)

Nakamura also made history by suing his employer, which gave him a bonus of around $200 for his invention, and winning in court. The somewhat un-Japanese action on Nakamura's part resulted in a settlement in the millions. He later became a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He also won the Millennium Technology Prize. (You can read more in a biography of Nakamura by Bob Johnstone called Brilliant!)

"I was in Japan with him and people come up to him in the street for autographs," Tamer said.

Stephen DenBaars
Stephen DenBaars UC Santa Barbara

DenBaars, a professor of material science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is one of the leading researchers on LEDs. DenBaars has said that if 25 percent of the lightbulbs in the U.S. were converted to LEDs putting out 150 lumens per watt (higher than the commercial standard now), the U.S. as a whole could save $115 billion in utility costs, cumulatively, by 2025.

"They (Nakamura and DenBaars) found the next breakthrough in LEDs in 2000 and they have been working on it for seven years," said Tamer.

Tamer, who formerly worked at Broadcom, will primarily focus on energy-efficiency investments. Earlier this month, for instance, the firm announced it has an investment in EcoMotors, which is developing diesel engines that could get 100 miles per gallon.

What else is Khosla Ventures cooking up? It has investments in G IV (semiconductor lighting), Seeo (a new type of polymer battery), Topanga (a plasma light similar to one produced by Luxim), and Lumenz (a zinc-oxide LED company).