Q&A: LumaStream's bright future starts as sculptor's solution

Published October 25 2013

Just five years ago, Eric Higgs shined new light on trouble with LED bulbs.

He began to understand that they failed unexpectedly. They shocked people. They caught fire. So he reinvented LEDs and, a year later, St. Petersburg company LumaStream was born.

In the company's short life, it has gained statewide notice with a presentation during Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's recent Energy Summit. The company has attracted millions in new revenue from mostly commercial operations that are seeking to cut their energy usage and lower their electric bills, using his unique, patented low-voltage LED lighting system.

Restaurant chains and banks, where lighting can make up about 30 percent of electricity costs, are among LumaStream's growing customer base, says Higgs, 47. While the company does not sell directly to consumers, it offers its products for residential and commercial use through contractors.

Instead of just a bulb, Luma­Stream provides lighting in fixtures with high-tech sensors that can adjust brightness levels depending on outside cloud cover and the time of day.

The company has grown so fast that it is about to open a new 22,000-square-foot building in partnership with St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood. The facility will include classroom space to train students in high-tech manufacturing, technology and electronics.

"We're helping people go get trained to get industry certification to get high-paying jobs," the St. Petersburg resident said. "It's very exciting. This is a program that is very novel."

The Times recently sat down with Higgs to talk about his operation and how Luma­Stream is transforming the lighting and energy market.

Give us a little bit of the history about LumaStream. How did you begin?

I've had a dual career of high-tech Silicon Valley companies. I'm a serial entrepreneur. But I've also had a very serious sculpture career. In 2008, I had a project in Tampa, which constitutes an entire city block. I put 12 60-foot sculptural shapes. I looked at what it was going to require to light it, which was over 20,000 watts … running 10 plus hours a day.

I have a problem with that. I'm an environmentalist. So I started learning about LEDs.

What did you find?

The light quality was poor and they were extremely expensive.

So how did LumaStream respond to this problem?

What LumaStream has that's unique is that we looked at the … nature of LEDs. The industry is creating LED bulbs and fixtures to fit into the 130-year-old Edison socket on a high-voltage infrastructure. Since LEDs run on low-voltage DC rather than high voltage AC, we have gone all the way back to the panel and said, "You know what? This doesn't make sense. Let's create a system that is like a stereo amp with speakers. Let's create a system where you can run (low-voltage) speaker wire to power your whole lighting system."

What are the benefits?

They're astounding. One, you use one-sixth the amount of copper. The environmental savings from the mines, to the refineries to the copper wire manufacturers to the shipping (are great). There's a lot of savings there in terms of reducing the carbon footprint for that area.

The installation is a lot less complex. You're running speaker wire rather than heavy copper. This copper has a freight train of power going through it to power a fixture that uses a trickle of watts. That makes no sense. So new buildings are going in and remodels with all this heavy infrastructure to power 15,000-plus watts. And then you have fixtures that use 5 to 10 watts.

How is LumaStream's product different?

When you screw in an LED bulb on a high-voltage infrastructure, it is packed with electronic components that turn that into a low-voltage power source. Any one of them can fail, especially in a power surge. So you get a situation where you have hundreds of failure points in every single fixture. And they are failing, by the way. These LED bulbs are catching on fire and they're shocking people. It's because the heat management in there is not proper. We eliminated all of those components out of the fixture. We have nothing that can fail in our fixtures.

It has been said that LEDs don't emit heat because there's a component that reduces heat. Is that true?

Well, they do emit some heat. Let's say an incandescent bulb is 90 percent heat, 10 percent light. It's a heat source, light's a byproduct. LEDs are the other way around, 10 percent heat, 90 percent light.

How would you characterize the demand for LEDs right now, both on the residential side as well as the commercial side?

We're looking at mass adoption now. In 2008, 2009, where there were early adopters, very early adopters, very few people thought it was even going to be viable for indoor use. It was cool, it was expensive. But what's happened in that short time is that we've reached the point where the payback period is … under three years in most cases.

A little over year ago, we talked and it was a pretty ambitious picture that you painted in terms of jobs. How has that been going?

Very well. Where are we a year later? Our head count by the end of the year will have more than doubled. I had spoken about approximately 200 jobs at LumaStream within five years. We anticipate meeting or exceeding that number.

The other jobs that are created by our success is that there are three or four manufacturing jobs (in Tampa Bay) that are created for every $1 million in revenue that we generate. And our revenue has more than doubled this year. We expect it to triple in 2014 from 2013. We recently won some large contracts that virtually guarantee that growth.

What has attracted these large contracts?

Everybody understands LEDs save a tremendous amount of power. Eighty or 90 percent, typically, depending on the application and the environment. People don't intuitively realize there's a large reduction in HVAC load, too. In a lot of our installations, it's averaged about 30 percent reduction in the commercial HVAC load.

How long should an LED last?

The bulbs claim 10 to 15 years. I haven't heard of anything close to that. I'm hearing of failures. Ours will actually last. Now we're 4 years old, you know. Time will tell. In average use scenario, 10 to 20 years is reasonable to assume that ours will run.

What's the upside as far as furthering the technology in both your system and the bulbs sitting in Home Depot that I might buy for my house?

The prices are going down. The quality is going up. It's like storage space. If you go back 20 years, storage space was astronomical. Now we get a little, tiny chip.

If you go way into the future, lamps are going to come with an LED light source in them. You're not going to be screwing in a bulb into an Edison socket.

Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.