News & Events

ChocoLED wins award

May 1, 2020

Yunping Huang

Yunping Huang

MSE grad student Yunping Huang decided to research whether his recently-acquired coffee habit had health risks. He didn’t expect the information he learned would lead to an invention: less expensive, more environmentally-friendy LED lights using a material derived from cacao beans. After realizing the business potential of his idea, Huang teamed up with two UW MBA students, Phil Cory and Jack McGarry, to form the start up ChocoLED. The team recently won a Connie Bourassa-Shaw Spark Prize in the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge.

Huang explains the origin of the product, how it works, and what is next for ChocoLED.

How did the idea for developing a low-cost, eco-friendly solution to lighting and displays by using cocoa beans come about?

Phil Cory

Phil Cory

There is a funny and also tortuous story behind this discovery. I came to UW from China three years ago and was new to the daily routine of coffee drinking. During my first year I consumed a lot of coffee, and one day I was actually worried about caffeine overdose and decided to do a little research about caffeine. Back then my research was organic solar cells, and when I saw the chemical structure of caffeine and other chemicals with a similar structure, I chose to use theobromine (a natural product originally from cacao beans) because I saw its potential in organic solar cells. However, applying the theobromine-derived materials to organic solar cells didn’t work, because they are not good at converting light to electricity. I was struggling a little bit until I twisted my thinking: they are not good at converting light to electricity, but they might be good the other way around: converting electricity to light (this would be similar to the fact that it is hard to push a car uphill but it is also effortless to let a car go downhill). So I started to investigate their potential in lighting emitting applications such as light and displays, and they have been performing with superiority.

How does it work?

Jack McGarry

Jack McGarry

We developed theobromine-derived color converters that can be used in the existing LED manufacturing process, simply by switching the color converters that are currently used. The color converters are responsible for the lights’ color quality, which has a significant impact on visual comfort and our physical and mental health.

Color converters now in the market rely on rare-earth elements as a key component, and they suffer from energy loss because of light scattering. Moreover, rare-earth elements are subject to price fluctuation owing to their limited supply, and there are environmental and ethical issues such as air and water pollution and illegal labor associated with mining in developing countries.

We use theobromine, which is non-toxic and abundant, to replace rare-earth elements in LED color converters. The use of theobromine reduces the cost of the production owing to its inexpensive nature and our eco-friendly and streamlined synthesis. Our experiments show these materials can also increase LED efficiency by reducing light scattering.

What does winning the challenge mean for the project?

I see this prize as a recognition for our initial step from lab research to the commercial market. I made up my mind to commercialize the technology this January and I am very glad that we won this prize with only three months of business development. We already used the prize to register our ChocoLED trademark and the rest will be used for customer interviews.

What’s next for the team?

We will be taking part in other start-up competitions in the future, and at the same time applying for funds such as the Innovation Gap Fund and the Small Business Innovation Research Program.