UV-C LEDs could outperform traditional disinfection technologies
Ivan Nikitski, EPIC’s Technology Manager for Quantum and PICs, talks to Jo Uthus, CEO of CrayoNano, a Norwegian company specialising in nanomaterials-based semiconductors for disinfection applications.
What is the background to your appointment as CEO of CrayoNano?
After doing a degree in computer science and systems engineering at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), I set up a company in the late 90s, which gave me a lot of experience in product development with software and network security technologies.
Later, in 2002, I transitioned to the semiconductor industry, working for US semiconductor companies Atmel and Microchip Corporation. In 2017, I obtained a post-grad degree in management from NTNU and, in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I became the CEO of CrayoNano. I was hired because my experience in the semiconductor business had provided me with a deep understanding of various aspects of the industry, including technology, product sales, marketing and operations, which would enable me to focus on customers, bridge the technology, and bring products to market through product development.
What were your best learning experiences?
My best learning experience by far has been working directly with customers. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on new product introductions and engage with a wide range of customers, understanding the diverse set of problems that they face, and finding solutions through high-volume manufacturing.
How has the company developed?
CrayoNano was set up in 2012 as a spin-off from the nanotechnology institute of the NTNU. For the next few years, the company developed different UV LED prototypes based on positioned growth of nanowires and graphene. During 2017, we achieved significant results reaching a wavelength of 275nm for UV-C applications, and we continued focusing on further improvements to the performance and lifetime of our first UV-C LED product.Accordingly, in 2017, the company acquired an MOCVD reactor and, with the support tools of a local university lab for chip processing, we were able to leapfrog in both research and intellectual-property protection, which allowed us to build up an extensive IP portfolio and patents. We launched our first UV-C LED in October 2022 to both validate the supply-chain and start engaging with customers – targeting first point-of-use water disinfection applications and are now actively engaging with several customers on design and scaling efforts.
We currently have more than 40 employees, located in both Trondheim and Taiwan, where we have a subsidiary that handles our supply chain and manufacturing operations. At present, we are in the scaling and commercialisation phase, focusing on ramping up our sales and marketing efforts, although we continue to invest in research and development as it’s crucial in this industry.
What are your main markets?
The main market for us is the UV-C LED industry, particularly disinfection and sanitisation, which is estimated to reach around $2.5bn dollars for UV-C LED by 2026. The highest level of customer interest is in water disinfection, including both point-of-use and point-of-entry systems. Also important are surface disinfection, and food production, where the global emphasis on food safety and sustainability is driving the need for effective disinfection practices in both production and packaging.
CrayoNano launched its first UV-C LED in October 2022 for first point-of-use water disinfection applications and is now actively engaging with several customers on design and scaling efforts
Additionally, curing has a lot of potential for industrial applications and manufacturing. Our customer base consists of system integrators who already have experience with LEDs in this field, together with system integrators who are new to the disinfection market but keen to incorporate LEDs into their existing applications.
What are your main sources of income?
We’ve secured capital from private investors in two tranches, one in 2020 and another in April 2023. We have also been successful in securing funding from programs such as the EU’s European Innovation Council (EIC) accelerator and Horizon 2020 programmes, as well as various national sources, especially in the deep-tech domain. While this funding has played a crucial role in our growth, we are now generating revenue from customers and product sales in line with the company’s goals. Our focus across 2023 is to establish a strong presence in the market and begin initial manufacturing as a foundation for scaling up in 2024.
How do you see the future?
Our growth strategy is to focus on expanding our supply chain and operations, particularly in Taiwan. We see strong potential for the company’s growth in the Americas, Canada, Europe, and various Asian markets. To succeed in this market, it’s crucial for us to prioritise manufacturing yields, which are relatively low compared to commodity semiconductor manufacturing. To this end, we aim to enhance the manufacturability of our products, product performance, and overall market adoption. As regards performance, increasing output power, which is expected by the industry, will be crucial as well as wall plug efficiency. With these features, we believe that our technology can meet the industry’s requirements and outperform not only current LEDs, but also traditional disinfection technologies such as chemical cleaning and UV lamps.
While the widespread adoption of UV-C LEDs beyond their traditional medical applications is key to our success, our immediate goal is to achieve success in one segment before venturing into the next, ensuring a step-by-step approach to maximise impact. Nevertheless, improvements in our products will play a significant role in driving demand across various applications and sectors. Our roadmap includes incorporating more aspects of our proprietary technology into future products, closely aligned with our customers’ needs.
Finally, although the potential for growth and innovation in the UV-C LED market is significant, we will continue to explore technologies that go beyond the scope of emitters, leveraging our material systems platform for applications beyond LEDs.
What are your future challenges?
The main challenge we currently face is recruiting talent to join our team and support the growth of the company – not only in relation to the technology and R&D, but also in sales, marketing and operations. While the market response to our products has been positive, we need the personnel to elevate our performance and fulfil the commitments we have made; this means delivering on our product roadmap and ensuring efficient supply and service to our customers.
CrayoNano's UV-C LED technology
A second challenge is the rapidly growing array of suppliers in the market. However, this situation also presents an opportunity because, while our competitors struggle to find their focus, we can maintain a clear and unwavering dedication to UV-C LEDs and emphasise the value we bring to our customers and our aim to establish long-term partnerships with them. Ultimately, the success of this market will depend on the presence of numerous suppliers, and we welcome competition.
If you started again, what would you do differently?
There are always things we wish we had done differently. However, I believe that we’ve been successful in the most crucial aspect applicable to any industry or business, which is an early focus on understanding the customer’s problems and market needs.
What’s your advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?
First, finding the right people and parting ways with the wrong ones is crucial. Hiring individuals who elevate the team, and partnering with the right people, are paramount to success. Secondly, as one of my previous managers wisely said: “the answers to your questions are not confined within these four walls” – it’s important to get out, engage with customers, talk to partners to understand their concerns and problems. These efforts, together with a humble approach, are the keys to success.