Let there be light: Q&A with Serralux Chairman David Willets

Wedaeli Chibelushi
- Technology - Jul 19, 2017

A recent Harvard University study found that employees working in green-certified offices display markedly higher levels of cognition than those that don’t. 

A similar study found that 77 percent of 200,000 employees surveyed state that natural light is important to them. Happy and healthy people perform better, that’s no mystery.

David Willets, Chairman of daylighting technology firm SerraLux, spoke to Business Review USA about the company, and how its helping to improve workplace wellbeing in the US.

What are the origins of SerraLux?
SerraLux Inc was founded in 2012. The origins of the technology however were earlier, born of the unique relationship between Peter Milner, an innovative “first principles” automotive engineer and an internationally accredited architect, Professor Michael Wigginton.

An experienced, serial inventor, Milner had been challenged to “do away” with the original car wing, rear view, mirror – notorious for being the most aerodynamically inefficient and clumsy component on a car. Milner’s solution was to design a prism structure to “bend light” from outside the vehicle so as to present the rear-view image on a reflector inside. 

Wigginton came across the report on the award-winning Milner Mirror and realised the potential of designing prismatic structures to achieve what was hailed as the “Holy Grail” of daylighting -  redirecting natural light from the outside to the inside of a building while preserving the view to the world outside. Michael explained the building design aspects, Peter did the maths and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is it about natural light that improves people’s mind-sets and health so markedly?
We all feel better when waking up to a sunny day. That’s not rocket science, it’s just a normal, natural human response to natural light. Natural light has been found to help beat seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D), increased levels of Vitamin D, aid concentration and alertness, improve a variety of skin conditions and even boost our overall immune systems. 

How was the technology for SerraGlaze developed?
The first prototypes were produced in collaboration with Saint Gobain and 3M using machines designed to manufacture micro-structured prismatic lenses for overhead projectors.

At that time, there were no specialist micro-processing companies to be found in the UK and very few optical scientists with relevant manufacturing experience. 

The market in the USA for daylighting technologies, although small, was homogenous and growing, supported by world class research institutions such as LBNL (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories) and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Colorado. Moreover, there was a greater number of US property owners, architects and engineering firms that were early adopters of new building technologies relative to their European counterparts. 

This is why I made the strategic decision to come to the US. Once there, I recruited the experienced entrepreneur and local Californian, Bob Ford, and assembled a small technical and commercial team. 

What have the company’s biggest achievements been over the last 12-18 months?
I think our biggest achievement in recent months has been our success in commercialising our family of “daylighting” film products. Our latest version has been developed to manage glare more effectively, in line with feedback from our current customers. 

At present, we operate in both the UK and US market in schools, offices and commercial buildings. We are particularly delighted with a recent independent comparative study by LBNL that has demonstrated the unique performance of SerraGlaze in improving energy efficiency in an already efficient building by up to 25 percent. 

We are also delighted that SerraGlaze is being installed in the new Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) offices in Boulder Commons, Colorado, as home to 100 RMI researchers and consultants.   

We’ve had inquiries from within the retail and healthcare sectors now too – which I think is testament to the reputation that we have built on both sides of the pond. 

Are there any exciting upcoming or ongoing projects happening for SerraLux and what is your vision for the next 2-5 years? 
Without saying too much, we do have a new product on the horizon. We’ve been developing this with newer technology, really focusing on how best to bring light deeper into the room, helping people to harness the maximum amount of daylight. 

There is also considerable interest in our developing a version of SerraGlaze® that will help prevent the millions of deaths each year from birds slamming into window glazing.

Our vision is two-fold. First, we want to commercialise our products globally– we have designs in the pipeline and lots of behind-the-scenes work which is coming to fruition. The next logical step after production is to then get that rolled out more widely, on a global basis. We are also currently conducting research into markets in the Middle East and India, and we’re all really excited about expanding our geographical reach. 

The second goal is rather ambitious but, in our view, necessary for the discourse and thinking around daylight. Rather than make good use of beneficial daylight and turn off the lights in the day time, we live in a society where all too often everyone from facility managers to architects, property and business owners, only see the unwanted effects of the sun and automatically seek to block it out by drawing the blinds.

We need to encourage thinking which recognizes the importance of daylight on our bodies, and our environment and strive to educate the next generation about the benefits. Instead of blocking light out – rather, let’s let the light in! 

This task requires important research which we are planning from our UK operation based in the STFC Campus at Harwell in Oxfordshire and is a way in which we believe, in conjunction with our daylight redirecting technologies, we can enhance the living and working environment for millions of people.

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