When NanoLumens’ salespeople got wind of a potential deal in Singapore, they had to go. After all, it was just a short jaunt from Australia, where they were already meeting customers.
A few short years later, what’s arguably the biggest LED airport display in the world — 224 feet in length — graces the new Terminal 4 in Singapore’s Changi Airport, a leader in aviation service and technology.
That sale is more than a feather in the NanoLumens cap — it’s proof the company can compete on quality even in a region and industry where Chinese behemoths tend dominate by driving down costs.
“We went up against 20 competitors, and they chose us out of the United States, and not because we were the cheapest,” Joe’ Lloyd, vice president of marketing, said of the Singapore deal at a Global Atlanta Export Stories event in late October.
That shows the company’s tenacious approach, especially as it crisscrosses the globe touting a new generation of LED displays to airports, malls, stadiums, casinos and other public venues, Ms. Lloyd said.
“Be opportunistic; go after it,” Ms. Lloyd told the Export Stories audience, which mostly comprised seeking to deepen their knowledge about selling abroad.
NanoLumens’ origin story proves the value of that simple advice. Founder Richard Cope stumbled upon the core of the technology while serving as a mentor to a Canadian technologist in a scientific competition. He only later saw its eventual application as he joined his wife, Karen Robinson Cope, on a sales call for her company.
“All of an sudden, it was, ‘Aha!’ — light bulb,” said Ms. Robinson, who heads up the company’s sales operation.
Prime Point Media specialized in display advertising on payphone stands, integrating brand messages into the urban landscape. In meetings with outdoor advertising companies, Mr. Cope figured out why LED was traditionally left out in the cold: It was hot, heavy and lacking sufficient screen resolution. He set out to change that.
“We were the first company that saw this as an indoor product, and we were able to bring in what’s called ‘narrow pixel pitch,’” Ms. Lloyd told Global Atlanta in an interview, using the company’s own term for enhancing resolution by arraying dots of light, or pixels, more closely together.
It took five years of research and development, but Mr. Cope had access to the right resources. The retired Marine Corps officer and former special operations adviser to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had also led companies involved in electric vehicles, fuel cells and battery charging systems.
During the 11 years since its journey began, NanoLumens has raised about $30 million, developing not only the core components of the technology, but also a sophisticated supply chain that blends sourcing mostly from Asia and Europe with assembly at a factory in Norcross, Ga. (Its headquarters is in Peachtree Corners.)
Out of that process came the Nixel, a flexible building block for the displays that allows them to be curved — convex, concave, wavy or even wrapped around a cylinder. Each Nixel is made up of LED pixels spaced at different intervals depending on the resolution. Ms. Lloyd likened it to a very high-tech (but bendable) Lego that gives facilities and their content producers options to engage with audiences in ways (and places) they never could before.
Ms. Robinson said it isn’t hard for LED to beat out the existing competition: static paper posters, less-vibrant but more bulky projectors and screens, video walls with TVs that degrade at different rates, or simply nothing.
But the customer has to see the light as well: LED isn’t cheap in general, and NanoLumens is not the low-cost leader in the field.
“We educated the industry for a couple years, so all of a sudden the industry said, ’I’m ready to buy indoors,’” Ms. Robinson said.
NanoLumens’ extensive highlight reel shows proof of that assertion, from the display encircling a large baseball at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, petal-shaped screens at the Toronto Pearson Airport or massive double-sided hanging displays like the ones seeming to float in air of Australian malls.
In places like the Miami Heat’s American Airlines Arena the displays even offer interactive elements to capture fans’ attention. It’s part of a trend toward more “immersive” experiences in a field once known more prosaically as “digital wallpaper.” NanoLumens in July launched a glassless LED touch screen.
Export Victories and Hurdles
One of Ms. Robinson’s proudest stories is about the display she sold to state broadcaster China Central Television. Partially using Chinese components, the NanoLumens team imported the parts, assembled the product and sold it back into China.
It’s a delicious irony given China’s role in the LED market: “There are probably six or seven companies in China that have a billion-dollar market cap that just do LEDs,” Ms. Robinson said.
Intellectual property — both the technology and how it’s produced — is what makes such a triumph of American ingenuity possible, Ms. Lloyd added.
“We believe that in America we have the smartest engineers. We’ve sourced technology globally but we put our American brains behind it,” she said.
But that cuts both ways, especially when having to protect products overseas. NanoLumens in June filed a lawsuit against four American firms for importing displays it says violated some of its patents.
Two were based in Marietta, Ga., sharing an address: Shenzhen, China-backed InfiLED USA and DetaiLED Solutions. Both settled, while the two others reached separate deals with NanoLumens. All four suits have been dismissed.
Besides intellectual property protection, other export hurdles abound, Ms. Lloyd said. A strong U.S. dollar, plus foreign tariffs on U.S.-made goods, can add more upward pricing pressure on a product already price at the higher end of the market.
“You can always find it cheaper elsewhere, and that’s not what we are. We are definitely a premium product, and so for us it’s becoming a solution,” not just a commodity. That includes an installation overseen by a NanoLumens project manager, even when performed by an outside contractor. NanoLumens also offers a six-year warranty down to the pixel, she said.
The challenges haven’t been insurmountable. Making a rough calculation, Ms. Robinson believes export sales could be as high as 20 percent of the company’s business.
Next on the list is Europe, an alluring but so far largely untapped market for NanoLumens, Ms. Lloyd said. The company seems poised to heed her advice and keeping pushing boundaries to tap opportunities.
“That’s our next big venture.”