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Ex-Seagate CEO to head LED maker Bridgelux

Bill Watkins makes the leap from disk drives to LEDs at start-up Bridgelux, where he plans to attack the general lighting market with low-cost manufacturing.

You can now count ex-Seagate CEO Bill Watkins as another Silicon Valley executive who has made the jump to green tech.

Bill Watkins
Bill Watkins

LED lighting company Bridgelux on Wednesday is expected to announce that Watkins, who was ousted from disk drive maker Seagate one year ago, has joined as CEO. Bridgelux also said that it is in the process of raising a Series D round of $50 million.

After leaving Seagate, Watkins started investigating the green-tech area and concluded that the LED business has many of the ingredients to grow rapidly in the near term.

"There's a $100 billion opportunity, a whole new disruptive technology with LEDs, and an installed base that owns the market but doesn't have good solutions. You don't see that very often, but that's how new technology can make an impact," Watkins said on Tuesday.

As CEO, he plans to grow the company by developing its manufacturing and expanding internationally, he said. At Seagate, Watkins was the president and chief operating officer before taking over as CEO from 2004 to 2009.

Bridelux has developed arrays of LED chips and substrates that can be fitted onto different lamps. The company sells the LED components to lamp and lighting fixture companies that sell to end customers.

Bridgelux's LED arrays allows it to manufacture LEDs cheaper than existing processes and be used for general lighting applications, according to Marc van den Berg, a managing director at VantagePoint Ventures and investor in Bridgelux. It started shipping its first products this summer.

LEDs are far more efficient than incandescent or florescent bulbs--an LED bulb can consume about 8 watts and put out as much light as a 60-watt incandescent. They also last for tens of thousands of hours and don't contain lead or mercury.

One of Bridgelux's coin-size arrays, which are designed for high light output and good heat dissipation. Bridgelux

Watkins said he was drawn to the clean energy area to help the environment, but feels that LED lighting is an area that can make a broad impact quickly without having to rely on long-term government subsidies. Among venture investors and entrepreneurs, solid-state lighting has become a hot area as the technology has improved and costs come down.

Because of the low power use and lower maintenance costs, LED fixtures that use Bridgelux's lighting can pay back the initial investments in less than two years, said Watkins, who was CEO of Seagate from 2004 to 2009.

LED lighting for electronics such as digital cameras and TVs are already well established, but Bridgelux is aiming for the general lighting market, such as street lights, businesses, and residential lighting.

"The whole world is basically going to embrace this technology. Every time you reduce cost, it opens up another part of the market. And when you get the (payback) to under a year, the whole thing flips over," he said.