Home » News » PolyBrite making world brighter, one LED at a time

PolyBrite making world brighter, one LED at a time

2013-2-21 15:44:13

The one thing Christmas trees, submarines and the Beijing Olympics have in common can be found in Naperville at the international headquarters of an innovative local company called PolyBrite.

Founded in 1995 by serial entrepreneur Carl Scianna, PolyBrite International manufactures light-emitting diode systems that are transforming the way people think about and use one of the world’s most ubiquitous energy sucks – the everyday light bulb.

PolyBrite’s patented technologies created the LED Christmas tree lights at Daley Plaza in December, the deep-sea resistant bulbs on board the U.S.’s submarine fleet and the entry signs to the “Birds Nest,” the official stadium of the Beijing Olympics. They also adorn the chandeliers at the Illinois Executive Mansion in Springfield.

“I look at myself first as an inventor and then as a businessman,” Scianna said. “It’s been a strategy of mine to make the world better and to products that improve the environment.”

PolyBrite has received top accolades. It was selected from nearly 400 nominees for a 2012 Chicago Innovation Award for its A-19 bulb, which consumes 90 percent less energy than the traditional incandescent lamp.

“It was like this little company right in our backyard that was doing innovative new things with light bulbs,” said Bryan Brochu, marketing director for the Chicago Innovation Awards. “They were doing a lot of new applications for LED light we had never seen before.”

Scianna engineered PolyBrite’s LED lights and the plastic bulbs that encase them based on the principles of safety, sustainability and simplicity. Unlike traditional incandescent bulbs, PolyBrite LED lights give off no heat or ultra-violet rays, last up to a quarter century and the design is fully modularized to keep manufacturing costs to a minimum.

But the challenge facing PolyBrite is the consumer perception that light bulbs are a commodity product worthy of mere commodity pricing. The company’s business strategy has long recognized this hurdle, focusing its product lines on businesses, military and municipal projects. But today, PolyBrite is taking bold steps to gain ground in consumer retail and to bring energy efficiency to the mass market.

Scianna believes the first step is to educate the everyday customer of the benefits of LED bulbs.

“I look at the market and I look at the products available,” Scianna said. “And then I look into the future to make a product that is superior to what’s on the market today.”

While a PolyBrite bulb may look unassuming, it is virtually indestructible, made of the same polycarbonate polymer used in bulletproof windows in banks. Scianna and his engineers should know - they shot at a test bulb with a .22 caliber pistol to prove it. The PolyBrite survived unscathed.

It is also waterproof.

“I was telling an engineer in Chicago it was waterproof, and he said, ‘Well, if it’s indestructible let’s put it in a washing machine.’ And we did that and it passed the test,” Scianna said. “We took it out, dried it out, put it in the socket and it was still working.”

Scianna’s original lighting innovation was to contour an LED bulb to shine in multiple directions, rather than just a straight line as in a laser pointer. In other words, he made his LED lights glow like a typical Edison light bulb, while using a fraction of the energy.

But not at a fraction of the cost. While PolyBrite’s LED lamps look and feel like your typical light bulb, they carry a higher price, running from around $6 to $35. That makes it hard to compete against a standard $1.50 bulb. But PolyBrite is making significant strides addressing the price challenge by streamlining lamp design to reduce manufacturing costs.

“One thing we’ve accomplished in the simplicity of the bulb is bringing down the cost,” Scianna said. “The cost of LEDs is already 60 percent less than it was a few years ago.”

The last, and perhaps most essential, challenge PolyBrite has tackled in creating a consumer-friendly LED lamp is designing its lights to look, glow and screw in and out like conventional bulbs.

“A lot of companies prematurely went into the home consumer market, and they’ve failed,” Scianna said, explaining that earlier LED bulbs looked blocky and industrial, gave off unflattering light and were generally unsuited to household aesthetics.

For the Chicago Innovation Awards judging committee, “One thing that was really interesting to the judging committee was that it looked nearly identical to the familiar incandescent bulb - and that’s something that consumers actually really do care about,” explained awards director Luke Tanen.

Scianna’s career reflects the growing momentum behind environmental sustainability. Immigrating to Chicago from Palermo, Sicily, as a young teen, Scianna began working at 18 as the general manager at Corr Printing Co. He did not attend college but managed to leave a trail of patents wherever he was on the payroll.

He developed a UV finish for plastics that’s been incorporated into products for nearly 20 years. He crafted the world’s first commercial LED lights for an Giorgio Armani billboard in Milan. And the water-resistant nature of his bulbs made them the first of their kind to receive certification from Underwriters Laboratories. UL is the nationally recognized testing lab for many of the last century’s new electricity technologies.

Along the way, Scianna met Jack Goeken, the legendary founder of MCI Communications Corp., the alternative carrier that challenged AT&T’s stranglehold on long-distance calling.

“Jack Goeken, I mean he changed the world. He broke up the monopoly with AT&T,” Scianna said. “He’s a genius and I’ve learned so much from him.”

Together, they founded PolyBrite as a subsidiary of the Goeken Group Corp. based on two product concepts, protective gear with LED lights for construction workers and LED products for after-hours joggers. Today, PolyBrite has numerous patents and product lines that cover the spectrum from streetlights to chandeliers with projects ranging from military bases to casinos.

The company, which is headquartered in Naperville, began the largest LED residential lighting retrofit to date in 2012 at Fort Knox in Kentucky, installing more than 9,500 LED light bulbs into 164 homes. The project is expected to save the community more than $859,000, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 4 million pounds and generate a return on investment in fewer than six years.

And the company sees new opportunities on the horizon. Its 2012 sales of $4.1 million are expected to be dwarfed this year by a potential of up to $1 billion worth of contracts in the pipeline.

Chief among these is a joint venture to the LED lighting infrastructure for Brazil’s 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

“It’s going to be a huge undertaking for us,” Scianna said. “So we’re building factories in Brazil.”

PolyBrite invested $25 million in recent years to build out its product lines in anticipation of upcoming contracts. Scianna’s great hope is to make LED light bulbs mainstream for the everyday shopper and to ultimately ease the planet’s energy strain.

“In life, you have to worry about that. You don’t want to leave your world in worse shape than it is. So when you make a product, you have a responsibility to make it environmentally friendly,” Scianna said. “We’re getting there. And the world is getting there.”

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