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Cutting-edge technology company calls University Ave. home

Posted on 11 July 2016 by Calvin

By JAN WILLMS
When Robert Jorgenson was 16, he wandered into an Ax-Man store, a place he liked to explore to see all the gadgets. He saw a sheet of glass that was black and had all kinds of wires on it. He asked what it was for. The store clerk told him that when sunlight hit the glass, it made electricity.

“I said okay. I was hooked. From that day forward, I knew what I wanted to do,” said Jorgenson, now the CEO of Lightwave Photonics, Inc., (LPI) located in a massive old art building at 2500 University Ave.

“I knew when I was young that I wanted to work with semiconductors, and I wanted to do something that would help cut carbon emissions,” recalled Jorgenson. He attended the University of Minnesota, picking up two bachelor’s degrees, one in chemical engineering and another in material science.

Jorgenson said he initially wanted to work in solar cells, but he found himself working with light emitters. “Emitters are a really good way of reducing carbon emissions,” he said.

LPIPhoto left: Robert Jorgenson looks on as engineers Stephanie Tandean and Sara Rothwell work with wafers in their University Ave. lab. His company, LPI, was established in 2007 to commercialize advanced LED technology. (Photo by Jan Willms)

“LED light bulbs cut carbon emissions by 5%, and we are trying to cut them by another 5%,” Jorgenson explained, as he described the goal of his company. “The efficiency of LED bulbs is somewhere around 30%,” he continued. “We are looking to more than double that efficiency.”

Jorgenson said that currently 70% of the energy in the LED bulb is energy wasted as heat. He wants to make the bulb 70% efficient, so that only 30% of the energy is going to heat and the rest for light.

Jorgenson said that growing up in Minnesota he was exposed to a lot of technology with companies that were here. “It’s sort of a little-known secret, but Minnesota is a hotbed for crystal growth,” he noted. “And that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Crystal growth is the foundation of all modern technology.” Jorgenson explained that the University and all the colleges around here are not focused on that, even though there is so much industry in the Twin Cities.

LPI was established in 2007 to commercialize advanced LED technology. LPI provides the only commercially available conductive, reflective, and lattice matched templates for the subsequent epitaxial growth of Gallium Nitride based LEDs and Lasers.

Put more simply, LPI is growing crystalline round semiconductor wafers that will make LEDs more efficient. “The current state of the art templates for subsequent LED crystal growth are basically transparent,” Jorgenson said. “Our wafers are highly reflective and ideal for crystal growth of LED materials. If you want green LEDs, you can now grow on top of highly reflective green wafers. If you want blue LEDs, you can grow on top of blue wafers, and blue LEDs power the phosphors in white LEDs used in light bulbs.”

Jorgenson went on to explain that by coupling LED light emission to a mirror positioned precisely by crystal growth, you create more efficient and powerful light emission. “We now have materials to allow that to happen, and we are talking to a lot of different companies. There are about 40 companies around the world to target, and we have generated a lot of purchase orders.”

The beginnings of the company that is creating these major technological changes from its small space on University Ave go back to when Jorgenson first met his wife in Minnesota.
“She wanted to get out of the snow, so she went to Arizona, and I followed along,” Jorgenson explained. “I was doing consulting, so I could be anywhere, and I was able to hang out with my girlfriend Lynn, who is my wife now.”

Originally, he was looking at similar technologies to license from a university in Arizona for a different application. “The metal did not have all the properties they said it had,” Jorgenson said. He started getting deeper and deeper into the physics of his research, and something clicked. Jorgenson and his now wife moved to San Diego, where Jorgenson started his employee-owned company in 2007. “I had filed a patent a year before that using the law services here in Minnesota. The best lawyers I could find who could understand the technology were here in Minnesota,” he said.

There was also so much opportunity in the Twin Cities with crystal growth that the company returned to Minnesota. “We were only supposed to be here six months and then move back to San Diego,” Jorgenson recalled. “We had put everything in storage. But everything went so well here, we decided to stay. We recently purchased a house, and now we are here and plan to stay here.”

The Jorgensons have been back in the state for four years, and the company has been located in the University Ave. artists’ building for nearly three years. LPI is surrounded by potters, a record store, a tattoo artist, and painters.

“Now we can produce the materials we need, but the problem we’re running into is making modifications to our equipment for higher throughput. We have put a lot of hard work into it, and from this point on, it is easier,” he said.

They have recently won a Department of Energy (DOE) grant. “It is a small grant, but it has really helped us take off,” added Jason McGrath, marketing director for LPI. “We’re anticipating winning a Phase II DOE grant in 2017 and are looking for small investors to help us get there.”

The company is also in competition for the annual MN Cup, sponsored by the University Of Minnesota Carlson School Of Business.

“This competition has been helpful, “McGrath said. He noted that as a part of the competition, mentoring services are offered by Carlson as well as the Department of Energy. “They’re helping us build a pretty solid business and commercialization plan,” he commented. “The competition kicked off a couple of weeks ago and goes until September.”

As well as cutting carbon emissions by another 5% in LED bulbs, LPI is helping enable projectors in persons’ cell phones called pico-projectors and better laser-powered headlights.

“BMW is developing laser-powered headlights,” Jorgenson said. “The type of laser we enable is superior to the lasers currently available.”

Jorgenson said some of the companies LPI is talking to have crystal growth facilities the size of football fields. “If you can just imagine, there are these enormous buildings with 100 to 1,000 crystal growth systems,” he described. “We are looking to sell wafers to demo what they can do, then license to those companies. We have patented the technology, and they can take the final product while it also cuts the cost of production.”

The wafers sell between $1,000 and $3,000 each. “We are looking at making six of them a day from this small facility here,” Jorgenson continued. “We estimate each company will buy about 400 demo wafers before they start production and the final licensing agreements.”

Quite an amazing undertaking from a company with seven employees working from a small lab, with a CEO who was influenced by an Ax-Man gadget.

Jorgenson also cites his training at Webster Magnet School. “I really benefited from that science program,” he said. His training at the U of M and working with a laser program at 3M were also helpful in his path towards technology.

“Some of the larger companies with crystal growth are still around, but not many of the little ones,” he said. Jorgenson said he is working with some of the colleges, such as the U of M with its Nano facilities that can be rented out, and St. Paul College. “We’re working with them to create an incubator, and we get some interns from there.”

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