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"Asia’s richest philanthropist," major Silicon Valley firm invest in alumni’s Nanoleaf light bulb
Quirky-looking and eco-friendly bulbs win new support
Just a year after launching a Kickstarter campaign resulting in more than $200,000 in investments, alumni startup Nanoleaf has banked support from Hong Kong business mogul and philanthropist Li Ka Shing (dubbed "Asia's richest man" by Bloomberg News) and Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins.
Nanoleaf was profiled by U of T News last February when the Kickstarter campaign for the stylishly designed innovation from engineering alumni Gimmy Chu, Christian Yan and Tom Rodinger, regarded as “the world’s most energy-efficient light bulb,” began to draw investments well beyond their original $20,000 goal. (Read more about Nanoleaf’s beginnings)
Now they’ve scored influential global funding while keeping the U of T connection alive, adding three new team members from the university (two alumni and one current student on internship) and even name-checking the support of President Meric Gertler when speaking with international media. (Watch Nanoleaf’s interview with Bloomberg Asia)
Nanoleaf co-founder Gimmy Chu spoke with U of T News from the company’s base in Shenzhen, China, about how they’ve grown from humble startup to global upstart.
What’s changed for Nanoleaf since we last spoke?
It’s been crazy over here! Since the last time we talked, we started production and received a great deal of media attention globally. I think people are drawn to the high energy efficiency design of our bulb as well as our story—a David vs. Goliath sort of thing—you know, just three entrepreneurs with no funding and just a bright idea. We used our passion for efficiency to build a light bulb that was well ahead of the competition. I’m actually surprised that the bigger companies haven’t hit our efficiency rates yet, but sadly I don’t think efficiency is their primary focus.
Around the end of November, we were put in touch with the U of T Advancement team when they ordered some Nanoleaf bulbs to give to alumni donors. Emily Pimblett, on the advancement team, was highschool friends with one of our co-founders, Christian Yan. She saw our Kickstarter and said, “Wait a second, I went to school with that guy!” and reached out to us. Tom and I were invited over to the university last summer and we were featured in one of the promo videos. I’d never expected to be on a video from U of T—it’s pretty incredible. (Watch the video here)
Then President Meric Gertler visited Asia and met with Li Ka Shing’s investment group, Horizons Ventures. They asked if anything was sparking his interest and he gave them one of our bulbs. It was crazy, the next day we got a call from David Palmer, U of T’s vice-president of advancement, saying that Solina Chau, one of the most powerful women in Asia, wanted to meet with us tomorrow—can we make it?
At the time we didn’t know much about venture funding; we were just a couple of engineers passionate about technology. But we realized that this was an opportunity of a lifetime, so we put together a quick presentation and trekked to Hong Kong for the meeting.
We are very honest, open people. So at the meeting we said frankly that we didn’t know anything about funding but here’s some cool technology that we’ve been working on. We also learned that Horizons Ventures is not your typical venture capital group just looking to make a profit. They actually put earnings towards philanthropy—healthcare and education in communities all around the world. For us, it was a perfect match with our mission.
Horizons Ventures told us to return in a few days with an estimate of how much money we needed. While most startups typically spend a lot of time in delivering pitches, for us it was a new world: we had no idea how to value our company but at the very least we could share our vision for the company.
At the second meeting, the team at Horizons Ventures was fascinated by the technology that we planned to introduce to the market and they were excited to jump on board. We ended up getting funding from them, as well as a Silicon Valley venture capital group called Kleiner Perkins.
This funding was a big win for us because it gave us the opportunity to grow a team. We now have an office here in China instead of working out of Christian’s aunt’s factory and our apartments. We started hiring more U of T grads (Ian Liu from computer engineering, Henry Chow from material engineering), and we also have an intern (Tiffany Hu, currently taking mechanical engineering). Henry and Tiffany were both members of the Blue Sky Solar Racing team that one of our co-founders Tom met while working with the team.
How has the past year changed your lives?
It has been a bit of a Cinderella story. We have been connected with people that we wouldn’t have even dreamed of being connected to. Our lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much because even before we were working nonstop. But the major change is that the funding allowed us to work on Nanoleaf full-time. Last year both Christian and I had our full-time jobs and were trying to do this on the side.
Also, the major investments opened up a lot of doors for us to people and resources all around the world. We’re learning more about running a business and the importance of staying connected. The Li Ka Shing Foundation donates to many top universities around the world so they’re able to connect us with valuable resources that we need.
Sounds like despite the long hours you’re still passionate about your work?
It’s definitely a dream come true. I’m working with two of my best friends and creating a little Nanoleaf family right here. We stay late at the office to hang out—we even have beanbag chairs in our lounge area. We’re also lucky to be working on something that we all feel very passionate about, the world needs more technology innovations that can really help create sustainability. We’re definitely on a mission to really make an impact on the planet and we have been fortunate enough to be well positioned to do so.
What’s next for Nanoleaf?
We plan to introduce a new product this summer and it’s going to be really, really cool. We made improvements to the light quality of our original Nanoleaf bulb and added features and functions — it’s also going to be dimmable—and I think it’s going to be a big hit. (Stay up to date with Nanoleaf on their Kickstarter blog)