By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
To paraphrase an old song, “Do you remember the night the lights went out in the Superdome?” Chances are you do if you are a football fan.
Andrew Wilhelm, Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of LED North America (LED NA), certainly remembers that night in early 2013. In fact, it was a call the day after Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans that propelled the Oak Ridge-based start-up in a direction that could have profound impact on both the company and the sports world.
“James Klett called me that Monday morning and suggested we look at a light for sports venues,” Wilhelm recalls. Klett is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist whose carbon foam technology has enabled LED NA to address the heat problem that normally plagues LED lights and produce a much lighter weight device that also benefits from the energy and cost efficiencies of LED technology.
Almost a year later, the company partnered with another local business – Bandit Lites – to install its new SuperSporttm lights in Thompson Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus.
Basketball fans got to see the difference during the men’s game with Vanderbilt on March 1 that the Vols won in a very convincing fashion. For Wilhelm, the lopsided victory might be view as symbolic of his more than five-year journey to build LED NA from scratch.
“We started the company to distribute and sell LED lights,” he explained. “We never thought we would be where we are today.”
LED NA’s evolution has taken the company through three product iterations – Manhattan, the inaugural offering appropriately named for its Oak Ridge heritage; Trinity; and now SuperSporttm.
“We did our first Manhattan installation in 2010,” Wilhelm said. It was designed to serve low bay areas, using only 81 watts per fixture but delivering 6,900 lumens. Next up was the Trinity, designed as a high bay luminaire. This product used 122 watts but delivered 10,866 lumens.
In the process of developing both lights, Wilhelm says he learned a valuable lesson regarding something called certification.
“Class 1 lights are more than 100 watts, while Class 2 are 100 watts or less,” he explained. While this might seem insignificant to many, Wilhelm says it is much easier to secure approval for a Class 2 light.
The new SuperSporttm is a 400-watt fixture comprised of four 100-watt lights, each with its own power source. Because of the design, the device falls into the Class 2 category.
“We got our Class 2 certification quickly,” Wilhelm says. “I lived and learned from Trinity.”
The new SuperSporttm produces 36,500 lumens, definitely impacting not only the fans watching a game but the players as well.
During our recent visit to LED NA, Wilhelm showed us version 1.5 of the SuperSporttm. He says it has the same lumen power, but a different housing or footprint.
These days find the company CEO on the road talking with managers of a variety of sporting facilities.
“We’ve been approached by NBA (National Basketball Association) and NFL (National Football League) venues,” Wilhelm says. “One thing they want is a color option that bathes the ice (at a hockey arena) or singer (at a concert) in color.”
This is not a trivial task, he says, explaining that LED NA cannot use color mixing LEDs because they do not produce the lumens needed.
“We will come-up with a solution,” Wilhelm says confidently.
Once LED NA addresses the indoor venue opportunities technologically, it will develop an outdoor version for the NFL.
Thus far, LED NA has not sought outside funding. “We’ve done everything internally,” Wilhelm says of himself and his investors. That could change in the next six months to fast track the opportunities that he sees.
After all, opportunities resulting from one-of-a-kind events don’t occur that often. When they do, you have to strike quickly.