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The lights over your head are about to get smart

Bridgelux is building a new kind of lighting that turns your ceiling into a network of smart devices. CEO Bill Watkins has bet his first-class seat on it.

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Take a walk through the labs of Bridgelux (PDF) in Livermore, Calif., and you see a lot of LED lighting modules being made on a more affordable platform: disused factories that used to make silicon chips. But while you'll see lots of lights, you'll hear mostly about connectivity. Bridgelux CEO Bill Watkins envisions a new array of smart, connected sensors, cameras, and other devices integrated with LED lighting over our heads.

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The challenge is formidable: Most lighting consumers, large and small, think of lighting as a cost to be contained, not an opportunity to be maximized. So job No. 1 is going to be broadening horizons and making the initial products a cost-saving play. But if Bridgelux can get a foothold that way, it could have a chance at becoming an infrastructure player, not just a lighting module producer.

The stakes are huge: Lighting will be around a $140-billion business by 2020, and huge players are already entrenched. But they lack Bill Watkins' long experience at Seagate, the world's largest hard-drive company. There he learned well the lessons of vertical integration and TCO reduction. Seagate was known for building not just hard drives but almost all the parts that went into them.

The company also understood that, in the end, its customers based hard-drive purchase decisions as much on energy consumption as other factors -- think large data centers that live and die on the energy footprint.

As one of the last engineered aspects of our lives that is still pretty dumb, lighting seems ripe for a revolution in its technology and mission.