Student Entrepreneurs: Saphlux

Chen Chen ’16 began his career as an engineer working for large corporations. Getting an MBA gave him a chance at a new direction: being an entrepreneur. From the moment he arrived on the Yale SOM campus, he started looking for an opportunity. “My ultimate goal was always to start my own business,” he said.

That opportunity came more quickly than he expected. Early in his first year at Yale SOM, he attended a program at Yale Entrepreneurial Institute intended to link entrepreneurial students with Yale faculty looking to commercialize their academic work. There he met Jung Han, the William A. Norton Professor in Technological Innovation at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science, who had invented a new kind of material that enables next-generation, high-power, low-cost LED chips.

For years, LED—light-emitting diode—technology has been touted as the next generation in lighting. LEDs use 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than an incandescent bulb. A 2011 McKinsey report projects that LED sales will grow 30% per year through 2020. But high up-front costs have limited the appeal of the bulbs. Han’s technology grows LED chips on a sapphire template with what’s called a “semi-polar” orientation. The resulting chip will be up to 10 times brighter, resulting in a much cheaper final product. “Lighting accounts for at least 25% of all electricity usage,” Han says. “Any kind of improvement in lighting could impact the energy infrastructure in a major way.”

After several conversations, Han and Chen decided to work together. They formed a company and called it Saphlux, a portmanteau of sapphire and lux. Chen relied on the support of fellow students and Yale SOM’s Program on Entrepreneurship as he created a business plan and set about trying to raise money. The program’s suite acts an incubator for new student ventures. Students get additional guidance through Startup Founder Practicum, a course that allows them to work on ventures with faculty and experts in entrepreneurship.

“SOM has proven to be a great resource to me with a whole entrepreneurship community where everyone is taking the same risk as you,” Chen says. “The environment and support is enormous.”

So far, Saphlux has raised $1.8 million in venture capital and grants. The company announced the release of its first semi-polar template for LED on May 16, signaling that the technology is ready for manufacturing. According to Chen, Saphlux is partnering with a major LED company to bring the patented technology to market. The goal is to create LED products that will be much more affordable. “It’s something good for the public,” he says. “Maybe the world will be better for it.” 

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