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Clean Tech Open alum Nila profiled in BusinessWeek

Posted by at 2:00 PM, 06/17/2009


BusinessWeek and YouNoodle's list of 50 tech startups includes young companies that are poised for growth. We're thrilled to announce that Clean Tech Open alum Nila was selected! Congratulations to Jim and his team.

To give you the story behind the story, we asked Sharon Bell, a Clean Tech Open volunteer, who recently sat down with NiLA's founder, Jim Sanfilippo to ask him how NiLA came about and the role the Clean Tech Open played in its evolution.


Companies on the BusinessWeek-YouNoodle list illustrate both types of cleantech plays...

...Los Angeles-based Nila, on the other hand, makes energy-sipping LED movie and TV lights that are lighter and easier to carry around sets than traditional movie lights. Nila's lights have been used in the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace and by CNN (TWX) for coverage of last summer's political conventions.


NILA: LED Studio Lighting —

Interviewed by Sharon Bell

Contact: Jim Sanfilippo, Founder

Clean Tech Open Awards: 2007 Energy Efficiency Runner-Up, 2007 Energy Efficiency Winner, 2008 Alumni Award

How did you come up with the idea for LED studio lighting?

I spent 21 years behind the camera, lighting scenes for movies and television and was a frustrated with the inefficient lighting instruments. The three main types of studio and artificial outdoor lighting existed—florescent, tungsten halogen, and hydrargyrum medium-arc Iodide or HMI. Tungsten and HMI are horrible for the environment. Tungsten lights are extremely inefficient and HMI lights contain high levels of mercury as a catalyst. A 12,000 watt HMI contains up to three pounds of mercury vapor; the bulbs are hand-blown, and break or explode all the time, thus emitting mercury. 

I became aware of the advances in LED lighting and so I experimented with it. I found it to be extremely efficient, using much less electrical load. I could see the potential, but I needed to make LED lighting perform like traditional studio lighting—meaning it would need to have the full color temperature range as well as produce enough quantity of light with an acceptable spectrum of light. My original concept was to develop a few portable LED lights for my own lighting kit. The Clean Tech Open helped me expand my idea to a much larger vision. 


How does your product address sustainability?

The Nila LED lighting system is 75 percent more energy-efficient than the most widely used studio lighting, tungsten. The lamps last twenty-five times longer, approximately 20,000 hours. LEDs also give off 80 percent less heat, requiring less cooling of a movie or television set. On many sets, the cooling alone can require as much electricity as the lights. When Oprah used the Nila Lighting System for the D.C.-based post-Obama inauguration show, the whole restaurant was lit with 40 Nila lights, and required the use of only four electrical circuits, which already existed. They didn’t have to bring in a generator that would have been required with traditional lights.

Besides the environmental and sustainability benefits, why are customers interested in your product?

The surprising thing to me is that our biggest selling point is durability—they just don’t break like traditional lighting instruments. They are cooler and don’t explode like volatile, gas-filled bulbs. Customers appreciate the modularity, stacking capabilities, and portability. 


What motivated you to compete in the Clean Tech Open?

I found out about the Clean Tech Open a few days before the deadline to enter in 2006. Not being a business person, I saw the benefits of having mentors from the business world—including finance, marketing, and business law. We won the runner-up status in 2006, and overall the experience was incredible. We were able to actually evolve the generic business plan outline that I had downloaded from the internet into an effective business plan. 

When we had a chance to enter again in 2007, we did not hesitate. This time, we won the Energy Efficiency award, so not only did we have all the benefits of mentoring and advice, we also won $50,000 and a whole host of services. Without this award money, we would not have been able to produce the LED lighting used in the latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. 

Through our newfound marketing prowess and exposure from the Clean Tech Open, we ended up in London demonstrating the Nila Lighting System for the Quantum of Solace lighting director and director of photography. We had 12 prototypes at the time, but the director wanted to use 30 on the film. The $50,000 prize was put to work immediately manufacturing the first production run of the Nila Lighting System. One unique use was in the car chase scenes both inside and outside the cars. They also put NILAs on the back of a motorcycle to light actors in the car chases. The NILAs were powered by the motorcycle battery. Because our LED lights are completely housed, they are much more durable than any other type of existing movie lighting. 


What are the biggest benefits to participating in the Clean Tech Open?

As a non-business person, I benefited from every meeting and workshop. The mentors were an enormous help in shaping me into an entrepreneur and my taking my vision into a real business. The business and financial plans I developed with the Clean Tech Open opened doors. The mock investor presentations and excellent feedback helped me gain credibility and confidence in investor meetings.

Besides having the money to manufacture lights for Quantum of Solace, how has winning the Energy Efficiency and Alumni awards helped?

I get invitations to speak all the time now. From that exposure, I meet lots of talented potential employees and business contacts. We gained credibility in our industry and customer base from winning the awards. We also generate more interest from potential investors and venture capitalists. 


What is the future of NILA?

We have several milestones coming up including European distribution and new products to launch in 2009. Are big milestone of 2009 is to surpass $2 million in revenue. We are also hoping to close a 2 plus million dollar funding round in the next six months. I have an ongoing relationship with the Clean Tech Open that keeps me connected to the incredible mentor talent. I also give back when I can, because the organization has given so much to me. 


Would you recommend the Clean Tech Open to other entrepreneurs?

I say yes, go for it. But, only if you are open to change. You have to be receptive to the words of expert business people who have been there, done that. I was a blank slate, so I soaked up the input and advice. I learned so much about everything from creating a business plan, to presenting the plan, to operating a business, financing, patents, intellectual property—you name it. 


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