Digital Lumens Takes a Cue from Smart Grid Tech for LEDs

If you want a smart lighting system that helps cut energy use and maximizes efficiency, you gotta lose the dumb fixtures and go with tech that has computer intelligence written into its DNA. That’s the premise of Digital Lumens, a 2-year-old startup based in Boston, Mass. that is combining LED (light-emitting diode) systems with networking and software for industrial facilities. Founded in 2008, Digital Lumens crept out of stealth mode this morning, detailing for the first time its plan to carve out a slice of the growing market for efficient lighting.

“We’ve merged together LEDs with networking software,” Pincince explained. He said the company has taken a “very, very energy efficient fixture,” and added “local intelligence.” Each fixture has an on-board computer and mesh networking capabilities, allowing the system to adjust to variables such as whether daylighting is available, the state of a neighboring fixture or if a particular work area or machine needs to be illuminated at a set time. The system can also be programmed, and provide data about usage and occupancy to facility managers through Digital Lumens’ energy management system, dubbed “LightRules.” According to Digital Lumens’ release this morning, LightRules can also be used to respond to demand response calls and can be integrated with third-party systems, such as carbon accounting software.

Digital Lumens started out under the name GroomLED Inc., and shared space in its early days with Salem, Mass.-based efficiency services provider Groom Energy. As Groom explains in this recent blog post, it recruited a small team for the Digital Lumens venture with the goal of developing LED-based lighting systems meeting the high-wattage needs of its commercial and industrial customers. Early LED systems, “were burdened with bad design DNA,” basically reflective metal shaped around lamps and ballasts, writes Groom. The type of system Groom wanted to see, however, called for an interdisciplinary team that could simultaneously consider “optics, thermal, mechanics, power and control. It’s more like designing a computer than metal bending.”

According to Pincince, while Digital Lumens has always been a “completely separate company,” that early connection with Groom helped Digital Lumens understand its potential future customers. The company has raised $11.3 million so far from investors including Black Coral Capital, Flybridge Capital Partners and Stata Venture Partners. CEO Tom Pincince said in an interview with us that the company is now pursuing government funding in hopes of gaining “access to capital as well as access to relationships.”

According to Pincince, the startup has plenty of financing for its current growth plan, which includes doubling in size to 30 people by year’s end (mostly in Boston, with some hires elsewhere in the U.S. depending on where customers are located). Pincince said the company “might consider” taking on additional financing if the company gains more traction.

Digital Lumens is targeting customers with facilities averaging a quarter of a million to 1 million square feet, paying about a dollar per square foot to light their facilities each year. These are facilities, said Pincince, that don’t have “a lot of moving parts in terms of reducing their operating expenses.” In other words, lighting is one of few areas where they can take out a big chunk of costs, and that’s where Digital Lumens comes in. According to Pincince, Digital Lumens can cut those costs to 10 cents per square foot. “You can’t do that with a dumb fixture and an expensive controls system,” said Pincince. The system has to be “built from the ground up.”

At this point Digital Lumens, which contracts its manufacturing to a company in China, has 16 different trials under way, but only one purchase order. Pincince declined to disclose the customer or specify size of the order, but said a “typical” purchase order would come to about half a million dollars. Digital Lumens has a lot riding on those other 15 trials, and Pincince said the company’s main focus right now is working with a small, emerging group of partners (partly in the interest of offering a shared-savings model to help reduce or eliminate customers’ upfront costs), and making,”our first customers and first prospects as happy as possible.” They each have “tens if not hundreds of facilities,” said Pincince, and the hope is to retrofit all of their facilities over time.

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