Traditional liquid-crystal displays are back-lit. But Mike Casper developed a technology for front-lit LCDs, started a company based on it, and has been manufacturing thin films that are taking front lighting to industries ranging from tablet computers to outdoor advertising to automotive.
With its latest round of funding, Azumo finally purchased its own equipment to produce optical films that are just one-twentieth of a millimeter thick. As applied to a huge variety of devices and surfaces, Azumo’s films are helping customers work in a variety of challenging lighting conditions—and saving them lots of energy and money in doing so.
But Casper and Azumo are walking their technology through one potential new type of customer after another with a twist: He doesn’t mind a lot of trial and error as Azumo introduces its technology and capabilities to customers.
“You can’t be afraid to just get your product out in front of customers even if it’s not fully baked,” Casper told Chief Executive. “So many companies get scared to have something out there for feedback because it’s about their job, or their reputation. But more often than not, people want to give feedback and test your product, and that’s been the best way for us to innovate. This approach is very common in software but not as much in hardware.
“It’s about not being afraid to pivot. The best-laid plans are good until you start the battle. But we’ve found success building our entire business model off of using sample products.”
Casper takes this approach because of his confidence in the fundamental appeal of Azumo technology. He figures customers will see it, too, and together his company and theirs just need to figure out the right ways to apply it.
“The way a typical LCD works is backlighting,” Casper explained. “When you turn your phone on and it starts glowing, you’re seeing light behind the LCD shining through it. But an LCD only allows 7 percent of the light through the pixels; the other 93 percent of that light is completely wasted as energy and heat. It’s the No. 1 reason why the battery dies in your phone.”
Plus, he noted, backlit LCDs fight the sun and lose. In direct sunlight, these displays are difficult to see and quickly drain the battery. Such displays work best in what Casper called “unrealistic pitch-black conditions,” not on devices that need to work in various lighting conditions, including outdoors and in bright-light environments.
Casper worked at 3M and as a consultant before enrolling to earn an MBA at Northwestern University. At the same time, he was developing and getting funding for his technology that uses front lighting in a “reflective” method by injecting light into ultra-thin material that sits on the front surface of a display.
First, Azumo partnered with Sharp for the Japanese electronics giant’s outdoor industrial applications. Then, two years ago, Azumo agreed with a large LCD manufacturer to produce tablets based on its front-lighting technology.
“The goal was to reduce energy consumption and also to make the display visible outside so you could work outside, or go to the beach, and actually read the tablet without having to squint as with normal devices,” Casper said.
As a manufacturer, Azumo has benefited from the strong Midwestern legacy of optical film production and roll-to-roll printing. Future applications will include a deal that Azumo has with a major automotive company to provide front-lit displays via its thin films that can be applied to just about any surface in the car, moving the conveyance of information to driver and passengers away from just the dashboard to windows, the center console and elsewhere.