colorkinetics turns 15

Oh man, Color Kinetics…those guys were just from another planet compared to everyone else!

Color Kinetics, one of the leading innovators in the LED lighting industry,  turns 15 this August.

I had the privilege to work in Product Marketing at CK from 2005-2008, right when the original founder George Mueller had just stepped aside, up through and after the acquisition by Philips.  The lead comment comes from a very technology-savvy lighting designer I spoke with recently reflecting upon the history of LED lighting.  His statement echos my sentiments exactly:  CK was like an advanced alien technology dropped out of the sky onto a moribund lighting industry.

CK was founded in 1997 by the charismatic George Mueller and the technically brilliant Ihor Lys, in a small office over an Italian restaurant in Boston’s historic North End.  CK was acquired ten years later by Philips Electronics for the princely sum of $735 million.  Now five years post-acquisition, it is an excellent opportunity to study what drove CK’s amazing run of success and a good case study of how bringing in expertise external to an industry can be the best way to drive innovation.

Over its history, CK managed to exploit the unique aspects of LED technology to launch dozens of new technical innovations and several entirely new fixture typologies that were unprecedented in the lighting industry. For sure, CK was riding the novel potential of a radical new technology derived from the semi-conductor industry.  Yet the inherent advantages of LEDs alone do not explain Color Kinetics’ success:  CK’s products were just so different from the rest of the industry, that still to this day, competitors keep trotting out new “innovations” that CK demonstrated over a decade ago.

So what drove such radical innovation at the product and system level?

What most people in the industry don’t know is that CK was founded by a group of robotics engineers, primarily from Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotics Center.  Both George and Ihor came from CMU and were quickly followed by several of their CMU colleagues like Fritz Morgan and Kevin Dowling.  The lighting industry had stagnated for decades, fixated on technologies and typologies primarily innovated during the 1960’s.  The discrepancies between the team’s advanced robotics backgrounds and what was considered “state of the art” in the lighting industry at the time is shocking:   The same people that developed projects like the Mars Rover, autonomous vehicles for DARPA, and robotic surgical instruments would be the ones who finally brought change to the lighting world.

CK’s founders combined “PIC chip” processors, pulse-width modulation techniques, and digital control software common to the robotics industry with the potential of red, green and blue (RGB) LEDs to essentially create robotic lighting.  When most people in the lighting industry hadn’t even heard of LEDs yet, CK was already launching digitally controlled and RGB color-mixing products in ultra-compact fixture formats. CK combined not one, but two technology revolutions at once and then topped them both off with stunning product design.

CK’s first product was the C-75, a compact, color-changing spotlight with a fat price tag.  The first products used the only LED type available at the time:  5mm “through hole” indicator LEDs.  In fact, the “75”  in the product name indicated that it has seventy-five 5mm LEDs inside.  CK originally targeted the theater market, but soon realized that the fixtures were not powerful enough to be embraced by theater designers.  So they switched tactics and started chasing retailers, then eventually settled into the niche of premium “architainment” projects like restaurants, hotels, museums, etc.

CK launched an impressive series of novel fixture formats, all with full RGB color-mixing: Modular cove lights (iColorCove), compact exterior floodlights (ColorBlast), exterior linear grazing (iColorFresco),  submersible floodlights (ColorSplash), MR16 lamp replacements, and even the first “string light” with individually addressable pixels (iColorFlex).  CK refined the performance of these systems with a range of sophisticated control technologies.  CK was one of the first companies to embrace high-power LED packages, and then also went on to be one of the very first to launch products with architectural-grade white LEDs.  Along the way, the excellent sales and marketing teams generated enough revenue to keep the company going and the management team won enough investments to keep the company growing. Following each product innovation, CK diligently supported leading-edge lighting designers to realize stunning, revolutionary projects. So “revolutionary” in fact, that CK’s early marketing binder was appropriately nicknamed the “Manifesto“.

Once the competition woke-up and saw the potential stemming from the revolutionary projects using CK’s products, the war was already long over:  CK secured several fundamental patents that were tested through multiple lawsuits, and CK won clear victories defending the validity of those patents.  I get asked all the time: “Wasn’t RGB additive lighting obvious???”   What everyone misses is that additive lighting wasn’t the key claim; it was the combination of PWM and digital control techniques with additive lighting that were the foundation of the patents:  robotic lighting fixtures.

All rocket rides must come to an end.  In 2007, CK made the dreadful decision to relocate from its vibrant downtown location out to a suburban office park.  Although Philips has largely left CK as a completely seperate entity, it made one initial ill-considered move to rebrand the company as “Philips Solid State Lighting Solutions”.  Philips restored CK’s name after one year and has largely abandoned that monolithic branding strategy.  As expected, many of the founding members “cashed out” and moved on after the acquisition.  Where did most of the founding members wind up?  Many took jobs back in downtown Boston and Cambridge, in small, independent startups with clever brand names such as Digital Lumens, Lumenpulse, EcoSense, MC-10 and Joule Bio.  Go figure.

After the temporary culture shock, CK has continued to prosper.  CK had a very strong team in place that continues to lead the company, and at the time of the acquisition, Color Kinetics was so stuffed-full of great product ideas that they’re still working through the product roadmap backlog.  The word on the street is that CK weathered the recession brilliantly, no small feat considering the recession’s brutal impact on the construction industry in general.

The rest of the industry continues to play catch-up, and many of the pioneering products have numerous copy-cats and are taken for granted today. But the legacy lives on.  The company is celebrating its 15th birthday by relighting the most famous lighting symbol in the world:  The Empire State Building.

Happy Birthday CK!