How an upstart helped Samsung beat the iPhone in energy efficiency

How an upstart helped Samsung beat the iPhone in energy efficiency

Joan Bryna Michelson is moderating a panel at the upcoming VERGE SF conference, on "The New Ecosystem of Innovation" which takes place Nov. 12-13 in San Francisco. For more information, click here.

Mobile phones are a massive business. Carriers had registered 5.9 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions as of January 2011, putting global penetration at 87 percent, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

Think about all the energy required to charge all those phones.

Fortunately, there are innovations in the works to reduce those energy requirements, and the resulting environmental impacts. One of the biggest: OLED or organic light emitting diodes. "Over the next 20 years, the [U.S. Department of Energy] estimates that widespread adoption of LED and OLED lighting could reduce electricity demands 60 percent and prevent almost 260 metric tons of carbon emission," according to a recent ElectroniCast study.

One manufacturer in particular is taking the lead on the energy-saving OLED technology. No, it’s not Apple, though the release of the iPhone 5 has reinvigorated the debate over which is the “better” display: LCD (which Apple uses) or OLED.

Samsung is the largest manufacturer of cell phone and other displays, and within the last several years has moved its focus to OLED, a promising new technology that uses up to 40 percent less energy. As a result, Samsung is making the most energy-efficient screen technology even more energy efficient — with the help of a small, little-known company in the Arizona desert.

David vs. Goliath

“Over time, OLED’s are expected to have a huge impact on the overall electronics industry,” Frost & Sullivan Research Analyst Nupur Sinha wrote recently. Because Samsung is the “Goliath” in this space, with 97 percent of the AMOLED market (a version of OLED) and 25 percent of the overall cell phone market, its steps leave a big footprint.

Cell phone manufacturers were seeking to improve OLED technology by focusing on the materials, much like a cook focuses on the ingredients. What a small start-up named Colnatec did, however, was focus on the tools — the knives instead of the ingredients.

Colnatec’s team of wizard engineers, led by co-Founder and chief technology officer Scott Grimshaw, developed the “Cuisinart of OLED tools,” as Wendy Jameson, Colnatec’s co-founder and CEO described it. Samsung is one of Colnatec’s biggest customers.

Next page: The New Ecosystem of Innovation

Colnatec’s innovative tools for manufacturing thin-film OLED, electronic and optical products have multiple benefits. They enable the manufacture of OLED displays that use a fraction of the energy, and therefore, extend battery life (a perennial frustration for cell phone users).They improve the production efficiency of the OLED manufacturing process dramatically.. They create displays and screens that are brighter, sharper, viewable from multiple angles, compact, thin and flexible. They reduce the reflection (glare) problem so you don’t have to cup your hand over the screen to read it. And they are cheaper to manufacture.

“America has huge power needs, and we're getting even more power-hungry with all our electronics, so finding technologies, such as OLED, that make products that use less energy (by requiring less frequent charging in the case of cell phones or lighting that uses less power to keep it turned on) benefits everyone by reducing the overall need for power,” Colnatec’s Jameson told me via email. “Colnatec enables that by making OLED manufacturers do what they do, better.” And cheaper, too.

Jameson is optimistic that, “Once costs to manufacture come down, savings will be passed on to consumers in reduced prices.” So, maybe it’ll even be cheaper to buy a more energy-efficient phone.

The New Ecosystem of Innovation

Colnatec is a classic 21st century story: Launched by a team that met on Twitter, and initially funded by a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the U.S. Department of Energy along with owner-funded capital. The company won the Arizona Innovation Challenge grant and was given a boost by the incubator services of the San Antonio Clean Energy Incubator (SACEI of the University of Texas), underwritten by the U.S. Department of Energy Small Business and Clean Energy Alliance Partnership.

This is the new ecosystem of innovation: promising start-ups launched mostly through self- or friendly funding, helped along by an SBIR or other government grant (especially if it is a technology-based company), then given guidance from an incubator or team of strategic advisors that get the company through the treacherous “valley of death”  between invention and the marketplace, where so many companies fail.

Incubators, essentially management consulting firms for early-stage entrepreneurs, have become a popular one-stop shop for promising start-ups, especially in clean energy-related technologies. Often housed on university campuses, as Colnatec’s SACEI is, entrepreneurs lucky enough to be chosen to work with incubators benefit from a full range of services and relationships based on the company’s stage of development, market, location, talent, and product/service. There are some timely results, but as with other advisory services (especially with early stage companies), overall results might not be known for years.

What we do know is that with SACEI’s help, Colnatec has secured purchase orders from six of the largest manufacturers in OLED, including Samsung.

That means that your next cell phone, or the one after that, may go a lot farther between charges.

Image courtesy Samsung