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Bright Lights, Big Legacy?
Christopher Steiner 07.23.07

A telecom pioneer aims to smash incandescent--and fluorescent--bulbs.

John D. (Jack) Goeken has upended applecarts before. In 1963 he took on the Bell monopoly in founding Microwave Communications Inc., better known as MCI. In the 1970s he built the largest computer network at the time for florist network FTD. Then he developed the GTE Airfone system. Now he's trying to knock off the 125-year-old incandescent lightbulb--but not with another compact fluorescent lamp, the ubiquitous shelf-stuffer of Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people ) and Home Depot (nyse: HD - news - people ). Goeken's PolyBrite International of Naperville, Ill. looks to leapfrog the little fluorescents with energy-saving bulbs that rely on light-emitting diodes, which are glowing semiconductor chips. "We're going to change the world," says Goeken, 76.

Not immediately. LED technology has been around for decades--and so have the promises of bulbs that don't remind you of an interrogation room in Fallujah. Goeken's wares will be in chain stores within eight months, thanks to a $100 million distribution deal with Osram Sylvania, which has a commanding 68% of the commercial lighting market.

Priced from $10 to $14 apiece, PolyBrite says its LED bulbs will deliver an incredible six times the light per unit of electricity that an incandescent does. (A 60-watt incandescent sends out 13 lumens per watt, a comparable fluorescent 50, the LED 85.) McDonald's (nyse: MCD - news - people ) and Macy's already have some in their stores and want more. PolyBrite's sales totaLED $3 million last year, mostly in LED dog collars and light wands. But Goeken plans to surpass $100 million this year. He had better hope for some big revenues. He has spent 15 years and $80 million ($30 million of it his own) toiling in a field with dozens of rivals.

Incandescents are not yet outlawed, but they are certainly losing ground among people who worry about either global warming or their electric bills. Of the $5 billion Americans will spend on bulb replacements this year, 30% will go to compact fluorescents. These have a few problems: They're fragile, flicker dimly in cooler temperatures and contain 5mg to 20mg of mercury per bulb. One gram of mercury can poison a 2-acre pond. In California it's illegal to throw a compact fluorescent into the trash; the maximum penalty is a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. PolyBrite's bulbs can be tossed--if you want to part with them at all: LEDs can last 50,000 hours, versus 10,000 for the fluorescents and 1,000 for incandescents.

There are doubters. "LEDs are not ready for prime time yet, in our opinion," says Michael Petras, vice president of lighting and electrical distribution at General Electric (nyse: GE - news - people ), which has a small LED unit (refrigeration displays and sign backlighting)--and, of course, a huge stake in incandescents and fluorescents, representing an estimated $2.4 billion in annual global sales.

With or without GE's blessing, the LED wars are heating up. Philips recently announced it spent $791 million to acquire Boston LED fixturemaker Color Kinetics (nasdaq: CLRK - news - people ), most of whose business comes through sign illumination and commercial fixtures in hotels and restaurants. Color Kinetics has only one bulb entry at this point, and it's not available via mass-market retailers.

Reaching the masses is key. "A big obstacle for us will be getting the right information out to the public," says Goeken. Starting this fall Sylvania plans a blitz of in-store displays, as well as TV and print ads and joint programs with Energy Star, which is a collaboration between the EPA and the Department of Energy.

"PolyBrite is not only going to be profitable," Goeken predicts, pondering his legacy. "It's also going to be good for mankind."

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