When Chris Morton looks at the screen of an iPhone or Android, he sees the past. But in his company's laboratory, he sees the future.
The longtime Orlando high-tech executive and his cadre of scientists at the University of Florida say they have created the next big thing for smartphone display screens: a brighter, greener, less-expensive screen-lighting system they hope will shake up the consumer-electronics marketplace.
Ultimately, it could mean lower prices and better deals for smartphones, tablets and other digital devices.
"Our system costs 60 percent less to make, uses 50 percent less battery power and is 10 times brighter," said Morton, chief executive officer of Orlando-based NanoPhotonica Inc. "The potential savings on the cost of the phone is substantial."
Since its start in 2011, NanoPhotonica has attracted the interest of manufacturing partners in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Private investors and public-grant agencies in Florida have together invested millions of dollars. Earlier this year, the company won the $50,000 Cade Museum Award, a top entrepreneurial award named after Robert Cade, who led the UF team that created Gatorade in the 1960s.
Five leading smartphone display-screen makers are now conducting pilot programs using NanoPhotonica's lighting technology, Morton said. He would not disclose their names, citing competitive reasons. The company expects to go into full-scale production by 2015. As many as 100 jobs are planned for Orlando and Gainesville, though final assembly work will be outsourced to Asia.
For an early-stage company, NanoPhotonica has reached some big milestones, said Jeff Turner, client-services team leader for GrowFL, a statewide business-advisory program based at the University of Central Florida.
"The biggest assets they bring to the table are their technology and the relationships they are creating," said Turner, who is working with NanoPhotonica to develop business leads. "They already have major agreements in place, and they have a clear go-to-market strategy. They also have strong leadership; Chris Morton is a seasoned CEO, and he is the right person to take this company forward."
Morton, a former Bell Labs scientist, was recruited by UF several years ago to establish a business around nanoscience research led by UF Professor Paul Holloway, now NanoPhotonica's chief scientist. Among other companies, Morton founded Melbourne-based SkyCross Inc., an early developer of the wireless phone's internal antenna.
Holloway's connection gives NanoPhotonica's work instant credibility in the scientific community, said Sudipta Seal, a materials-science professor and head of UCF's nanoscience center.
"This company is obviously based on a lot of invention and investment,'' Seal said. "I have no doubt that what they are proposing is very unique in the marketplace."
According to Morton, NanoPhotonica's lighting system uses tiny electro-optical transistors layered with superconductive chemical materials smaller than the width of a human hair. Hundreds of thousands of the chips are aligned with the display screen, converting electricity into color and light.
Though others are working on similar technologies, NanoPhotonica's edge is twofold, Morton said. The first is what he calls its "secret sauce" — the chemical recipe of nano-materials that energize the lighting — and second, the company's much-less-expensive factory process, which uses conventional inkjet printers to apply nano-layers to the chips.
NanoPhotonica's technology can also be used in solar panels; laser-based aerospace and commercial systems; and conventional lighting for residential or commercial buildings, he said. NanoPhotonica's most recent contract involves developing elements that would replace lasers in conventional laser printers, he said.
One of the challenges the company faces, however, will be to focus on markets that show the best potential returns, said Richard Fox, a partner in Orlando-based Astralis Group, an entrepreneurial-advisory firm.
"With the executive experience Chris Morton provides and the credentials coming out of UF, this company is one of the stronger opportunities in Orlando these days," he said. "The challenge is going to be navigating into the right markets. They'll have to be careful not to try to do too much.''
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