By Isel Longoria
Behind lighting technology lies a bright mind with an even brighter future.
Through her research in graduate school, Kristin Denault decided to start her company, Fluency Lighting technologies Inc., to improve lighting with energy-efficient laser technology. In May she won a Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award for science and technology through the Spirit of Entrepreneurship Foundation at the Hilton Santa Barbara.
The idea for the company started after Denault’s group took second place in 2014 at UCSB’s New Venture Competition, which is part of the school’s Technology Management Program.
In the competition, student teams present their business plans and finalists have the opportunity to compete for prize money.
At 30 years old, Denault already holds numerous awards and degrees. In 2010 she received her bachelor of science degree in materials science and engineering at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She then moved to Santa Barbara to attend graduate school at UCSB in 2014. She was part of the graduate program in management practice and technology management and also completed her Ph.D. in materials.
With the company in its early stages, Denault says it has been difficult to find funding, although Fluency has received grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the past.
“I think funding is a big challenge, and especially when it’s a very technology-heavy company,” Denault said.
The company’s purpose is to create energy-efficient light sources using laser diode excitation technology and materials design — similar to LEDs, but with higher light output and more control over the output light.
“We are designing the device and the materials and the optics to then convert that laser light into a usable, high-color-quality white light,” Denault said.
Since she started in July 2014 she’s been mostly managing the company on her own.
“I am in the process of hiring three more full-time people, which will be really nice,” she said. She previously had an employee for about 18 months through a grant from UCSB.
Light-emitting diode (LED) is one of the current lighting sources that Fluency Lighting Technologies Inc. could replace with an energy-efficient laser lighting product in the future.
Using laser technology over LEDs would be smaller, longer lasting, lower maintenance, and have a simpler physical design, she said.
“You want a very small light source that is very bright and has a very narrow beam that can reach over long distances,” Denault said. The company is still in the process of optimizing and developing its prototypes and is working with suppliers.
She said she has learned a lot since she started this business venture.
“The lighting industry is pretty large, and there’s been a lot of twists and turns along the way,” Denault said.
One of the things she’s enjoyed the most is receiving feedback from people on how they use light sources and how this technology could improve that.
“The best part has been being able to take a technology that I helped to create and be able to turn it into something useful that people in society can use in their everyday lives,” Denault said.
She recognized the low number of women in science and engineering throughout her education but once her company was created, she realized that the same lack of diversity was occurring somewhere else.
“I always thought that science and engineering had a big diversity problem, but it’s definitely there in business as well,” Denault said.
Support groups for women in business and women in science and engineering have helped her. Denault said having a supportive boyfriend and taking nature walks are some of the things that help her remember the beautiful aspects in life.
“Living in a place like Santa Barbara really helps with that,” she said.
She credits her success to the Central Coast community, grad school and her mentors, and for her “success” means more than accomplishments.
“What you might consider wasn’t a success, just learning from that and moving forward, is successful in my mind,” Denault said.