World's most efficient light globe comes to Hong Kong

The creators of an eye-catching light bulb, touted as the world's most energy efficient, are hoping to show that going green doesn't have to be dull

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 January, 2015, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 January, 2015, 9:29am

Hongkongers can now buy what's being marketed as the world's most energy-efficient light bulb across the city, and the company's founders insist that these are more than just odd-looking lamps made from a series of pentagons.

Nanoleaf founder Christian Yan says the bulb is a symbol, intended to encourage a more energy-efficient lifestyle with well-designed products.

The bulb uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs), semiconductor devices that light up when an electric current is passed through them. LEDs are more energy-efficient than other light sources, such as incandescent bulbs - the traditional kind that have a filament in the middle.

"Even if we just add a little to this [energy conservation] game, we're happy," Yan says. "If we can help people to get to know more about LEDs, they may buy other people's products, too," he says. "It's about making the world a better place.

"We're not just trying to sell a light bulb; we're not trying to become the next Fortune 500 lighting company. Nanoleaf is about pushing limits in the products we design."

According to Nanoleaf, its bulbs are 88 per cent more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and will last 30,000 hours - that's roughly 27 years if you use them for three hours a day.

The product doesn't look like an ordinary light bulb, but consists of a flat circuit board covered with LEDs, which you fold into shape.

Yan says the bulb saves energy because it has customised components that don't waste as much energy through heat as other LEDs.

The bulb isn't cheap - the basic model costs HK$268, and a more advanced one (which you can dim without a switch) costs HK$368. The argument is that, although it costs more, money will be saved on electricity bills, and bulbs won't have to be replaced as often, says Jonathan Tam Joy-man, Nanoleaf's business development manager.

"We're trying to challenge the status quo of the cost of light bulbs, how you think about light bulbs, and how much they should cost," Tam says.

Many customers have bought into their idea. The team started with a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which raised more than US$273,000 in March 2013 - more than 10 times the sum they were seeking. The bulbs are now available in Fortress and ParknShop.

Tycoon Li Ka-shing's venture capital investment company Horizons Ventures, whose portfolio included early-stage funding for Skype, Facebook and Spotify, funded Nanoleaf. It now has 20 full-time employees and its products are made in Dongguan, Guangdong province. They are available in a number of countries.

The Nanoleaf products come to market at a time when incandescent light bulbs are being phased out. In December 2013, some retailers in Hong Kong, including ParknShop, stopped selling them.

In Canada, the government banned incandescent bulbs in January 2014. In the US, a 2007 law went into effect, requiring light bulbs to be 25 per cent more efficient.

A 2012 report from the US Department of Energy forecast that LEDs would play a bigger role in the lighting market, rising from about 9 per cent in 2015 to more than 73 per cent by 2030. 

Yan founded Nanoleaf in 2013 with Gimmy Chu and Tom Rodinger, two friends and all alumni of the University of Toronto. All three have a background in engineering and met through the university's solar car team. Energy-efficient lighting, however, was not their goal. They wanted to make a solar-powered battery, and stumbled upon light bulbs when they were looking for the most energy-efficient light for their battery.

Yan says paying attention to lights has now become an occupational hazard for him.

"Everywhere I go, I look at lights: the lights on the ground, what are the lights in the washroom, on top of the bar, in the ceiling. Once you start looking, you realise there's so much room for improvement. Do you know how many lights are on 24/7 at airports? You start thinking how much they must pay to keep them on."

Yan says although LED products already existed, the ones he saw three or four years ago at trade fairs on the mainland showed room for improvement.

"We would go to these fairs and see every supplier had exactly the same light bulb. It was all about price, they all looked exactly the same. There was no innovation and the quality was not very high."

He particularly remembers a solar lamp that was all the rage.

"They marketed it as this thing that you stick in the grass, that people can buy for the garden, which has a solar cell. I've seen them in Canada and I've seen them in Walmart. I actually went to the factories that make them. Horrible quality."

Yan says users told him that even after a day of charging, it stayed lit for only 30 minutes.

Yan acknowledges that the technology was basically sound but needed improving, and draws an analogy to what Apple did for smartphones.

"Smartphones were here five years ago, and then Apple came along and made them beautiful. That's what we're trying to do as well," he says. "The product has to look great. We want to make a product that's green, but which looks designed, looks beautiful, so you want to have it in your home or hotel."