Could A Nobel Prize-Winning Innovation Have Almost Been Overlooked By Silicon Valley?

Editor’s note: Vinod Khosla is an entrepreneur and investor. He is the founder of Khosla Ventures, which is focused on impactful sustainable energy and information technology investments.

I want to congratulate Shuji Nakamura (pictured above), the founder of Khosla Ventures portfolio company Soraa, and his fellow collaborators who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday. They join an esteemed group of Nobel laureates that includes Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Niels Bohr, all of whom have changed the course of human history.

In 2001, after reading a technical article written by Shuji about GaN on GaN LEDs, we began a series of conversations spanning the course of seven years about the potential magnitude of the technology’s application to lighting. These conversations eventually led to Shuji starting Soraa in 2008.

Yesterday, the Nobel Prize committee finally recognized this groundbreaking work. “The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power.”

Most of Silicon Valley has turned its back on the groundbreaking research required to ultimately transform how people live. Rather than focusing on lighting the world, investors are too often myopic about understanding or investing in this kind of high-risk, deep scientific innovation. True innovation is hard; even the Nobel Prize committee has recognized that Shuji and his partners, “succeeded where everyone else had failed.”

Physics-based technology development and startups are extraordinarily difficult as many valuable things are. Today, Soraa is the only GaN on GaN LED in the world, and it’s on a trajectory to be the most efficient LED lighting technology by far. In the Silicon Valley tradition, Soraa defied conventional wisdom that its technology was too expensive and impractical. Many pundits advised against its approach, but today, GaN on GaN requires 80 percent less capital expenditure and 80 percent less material to produce the same amount of light as a conventional LED. Further, Soraa’s LEDs last far longer and produce better-quality light than any other lighting technology today.

Soraa is now on its third generation of LED products, and its future is promising, but success was not always obvious. On multiple occasions, the technology was at risk of never seeing the light of day. The company nearly failed multiple times for lack of funding and required many bridge financing rounds, short-term payroll patches and even personal loans of substantial magnitude for this impactful technology to survive. Because of our persistence, we are now fortunate to be large financial stakeholders but only because it was hard to find co-investors.

Many times, we weren’t sure we’d be able to sustain such an ambitious undertaking. It took real perseverance through difficult periods by the founders and management team to get to where Soraa is today. At one point, a KV operating partner even served as the interim CEO. Although Soraa may not be considered a complete success just yet and lots of hard work still remains, it is doubtful that this technology will disappear today, as was the risk just as recently as a year ago.

Notwithstanding the rapid growth in revenue and success over the last year, there were still challenges in the past, including securing additional financing, which was especially difficult because the company was categorized as a cleantech investment. In fact, other notable entrepreneurs working on world-changing sustainable energy efforts, like Elon Musk, went through similar turbulence to secure funding.

Tesla had more than its share of near-death experiences, and Musk personally provided financial support, red-lining his ability to fund the company when no outside investors would. In Silicon Valley, the appetite for risk and having courage of one’s convictions sometimes waivers around unfamiliar technologies, hard stuff and new areas, especially if it is out of fashion.

LEDs will undoubtedly light the future: “As about one fourth of world electricity consumption is used for lighting purposes, the LEDs contribute to saving the Earth’s resources. Materials consumption is also diminished as LEDs last up to 25,000 or more hours, compared to 1,000 for incandescent bulbs and 10,000 hours for fluorescent lights.” Now, envision one-fifth the energy consumption with Soraa’s technology.

In the future, lighting will be cheaper and more efficient since LEDs will eliminate dangerous high voltage wiring and will not require conduits or electricians. As a result, lighting also will become more mobile and flexible.

For example, as one moves a desk or dining table, it will also be easier to move the accompanying lights. As lamps produce less heat, air-conditioning bills will go down, too. Combined with networking and home sensors, new-generation lighting could enable highly creative and higher efficiency applications. Consider networked buildings, new controls from your smartphone, enhanced personalization and distributed sensing, all of which Soraa is developing. Because of superior lighting sources and lower heat emission, imagine flat lights that look like a sheet of wallpaper, lighted fabrics, 3D-printed lights and the possibilities if each light has its own IP address. The innovations will enable complete design freedom.

Lighting innovation is still in its infancy. When Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921 for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, there were still so many advancements that would stem from his work, from the control of atomic energy to space exploration and even applications of light.

Today, much of the world still lives in darkness. The resource-rich lifestyle 700 million people enjoy — and we take for granted with the flip of a light switch — is one for which 7 billion people are still striving. Entrepreneurship is likely the only necessary if not sufficient response to meet the global population’s desires for a better life and that is the promise of Silicon Valley.

If we are to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change, we need to back many more Shuji Nakamuras in even more areas of technology innovation. We must not be afraid to fail in attempting these invaluable but risky innovations. The biggest risk we can take is to not take any risk at all.