Maybe the sun just isn’t good enough anymore. It may be free, but it’s not adjustable, hides at night and, for many plants, its rays don’t compare to the high tech lighting recipes that scientists at Austin-based Illumitex have been cooking up.
Illumitex’s light emitting diode (LED) light recipes are now being used around the world to grow bumper crops of tomatoes, basil and one of the world’s most lucrative plants, marijuana. The company’s success is based largely on their ability to customize wavelengths and intensity of the light to boost the growth of plants.
Currently, greenhouses, where producers grow tomatoes, basil and other eatable veggies, are easily Illumitex’s biggest customer base, CEO Chris Hammelef said. Greenhouses have traditionally used high-pressure sodium lighting to supplement lighting when it’s too cloudy or during fall and winter. LEDs provide 50% energy savings and more uniform crop growth.
“We’re the only people who can mix light like paint,” Hammelef said. “We’re able to put the theoretical maximum amount of light for photosynthesis on a plant. We’ve reached that theoretical maximum. Light no longer is a barrier of growth to plants. We give them so much light they don’t need any more.”
With medical marijuana legal in 23 states and recreational pot booming in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and DC, marijuana growers are Illumitex’s number two batch of clients.
Hammelef said greenhouse clients typically save enough money to cover the cost of the new lights within two or three years.
“Marijuana is a whole different game,” he said. “The payback there is usually less than six months because of the value of the crop and the speed at which we can do it.”
He said 30% of marijuana is truly medical. “Whether it be seizures or PTSD, they’ve really proven that, and then, of course, people just get stoned,” he said. “I mean that’s just the way it is.”
Illumitex lighting can bring a marijuana from clone to harvest in 52 days. Traditionally, it takes about 75 days.
“We give our medical customers a minimum yield improvement of 25% more product,” he said. “When you’re selling a product for $4,000 to $6,000 a pound, a 25% yield improvement is pretty substantial.”
Hammelef said he expects 11 more states to legalize marijuana in some form this year and that in 3-5 years marijuana will be downgraded from a Class 1 narcotic to a Class 2, which would open it up to research.
But there may be an avenue for high tech lighting that’s even bigger than growing reefer at record speeds — beauty products.
Eliminating Acne With LEDs
Illumitex got $16 million in funding earlier this month, bringing total funding to $35 million since they recapitalized the company in 2012, shifting investments prior to 2012 to common stock. The company, which has factories in Austin, Malaysia and China, is using the money to expand marketing, advertising and sales staff.
But it’s also reaching into the beauty market.
Illumitex recently completed a successful FDA trial using a particular wavelength of light to kill a bacteria that creates acne. Users hold a device about half the size of an iPhone to three different portions of their face for one minute each. Hammelef said the light can eliminate acne in 11 days.
He estimates the product will get FDA approval and be ready for market in six months. But the company is looking for beauty product makers to distribute the acne-killing lights.
Farms Go Vertical
Illumitex lights are used in vertical farms, which are often housed in re-purposed warehouses and have plants stacked up 40 feet or more with about two feet in between. Hammelef says he expects vertical farming to grow worldwide and surpass marijuana as their second biggest market.
Illumitex equipped Chicago-based FarmHere, the largest vertical farm in the nation, which sells to Austin-based Whole Foods. The lighting company has equipped several others around the world.
“Verticle farms are projected to be a $4 billion business by 2018, but it’s just emerging,” Hammelefe said. “So it’s going to emerge very quickly. But growing lettuce, micro-greens and kale indoors is still fairly new.”
Illumitex got rolling in 2007 with mostly under the radar research and development. In 2012, the company recast itself after hiring Hammelef, a who had been in charge of Hadco Group, an outdoor lighting company that’s part of Philips, the Dutch electronics company.
He jumped to Illumitex because it had developed a unique LED system that had big potential in horticulture.
“When we restarted the company in 2012, we had no sales,” he said. “We’ve doubled and tripled every year since. We’re on a path right now to do over $20 million this year.”