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.

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