Vancouver's Nano-Lit combats health issues by providing sunlight on demand in offices

The company tunes its lights to mimic the sun’s natural progression

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      According to Sarah Morgan, founder and CEO of Nano-Lit Technologies, most offices are lit with LEDs that are “the colour of urine”. That’s a problem, she says, because sunlight’s rich spectrum is vital to regulating all of our bodily functions, and the yellow glow of current indoor lighting can interfere with our natural rhythms.

      “We tune lighting for plants but we don’t tune it for humans yet,” she tells the Georgia Straight on the line from her Strathcona office. “We’re incredibly susceptible to the changing wavelengths of light coming from the sun. We know it affects our hormones, our sleep cycle, when we go to the toilet—everything. The human eye is controlling, via sunlight, every system in your body.”

      Morgan developed a keen interest in biofeedback and humans’ circadian rhythms—the biological processes that take place at the same time every 24 hours—and explored light’s effects on the body while working on her master’s thesis on LEDs and biomimicry. After graduation, she moved in a different direction, spending the following years designing handbags that were shown at prestigious fashion weeks around the globe and earning her chops as an entrepreneur. As she was ready to wind down the business, she connected with a professor at Cornell University who was working on breast-cancer research and saw a way that she could transform the lighting industry using “quantum dots”—a kind of human-engineered nanoparticle that glows a particular colour when illuminated by UV light. That discussion turned into the foundation for Nano-Lit.

      “LEDs have materials in them that we call phosphors,” she explains. “When you excite the phosphors with blue light, which is what LEDs use, it filters that blue light to give you other colours of light. So when you mix a yellow phosphor with a blue light, for example, you get a white light. It’s like paint.

      “Quantum dots can be used to replace that phosphor material in LEDs,” she continues. “Rather than using a paint-mixing approach, which isn’t very accurate...when you change the size of it at an atomic scale, it changes the colour of the light that it emits.”

      Quantum dots’ ability to finely tune light colours has been proposed as a solution in everything from medical imaging to quantum computing. Morgan and Nano-Lit Technologies, however, have cornered a much more accessible market, bringing responsive lighting into offices and care homes.

      “With our Smart Diffuser, we are able to program lights so that it appears as if sunlight is moving throughout the room during the day,” she says. “Our product goes directly into existing light fixtures, so we’re recycling the metal housing of the fixtures. We’re making it so that you don’t have to have fancy networking and wall panels to get this. You can just replace the tube and wire our fixture in and it automatically follows the solar schedule and changes colour temperature throughout the day.”

      The benefits to installing lighting that mimics the sun’s natural progression, Morgan says, are vast. Offices that choose to invest in quantum-dot lights have seen employee retention increase from 1.8 to 2.8 years. Those on the job are more efficient and also take fewer sick days—implying that staff members are both happier and healthier. Installing the lights in seniors’ homes, too, has helped to reduce middle-of-the-night accidents, because research suggests that receiving the right light at the right time of the day helps the elderly sleep through the night without medication.

      “It’s a bit like selling organic food,” she says of the business model. “Either people are into it or they’re not. But over the years, the market has grown so much that Amazon bought Whole Foods. High-tech companies are typically led by high-performing people. When we speak to individuals like that about our technology, it’s a no-brainer. It makes sense to invest in it, because it can be used to attract talent. Lighting is the new snacks.

      “We’re in the early stages of this technology,” she continues. “The company was started with the idea that light will one day become a material the same way that wood, plastic, and glass are now. Quantum dots have the capacity to get us there. We know that in the next 15 years there’s an opportunity for using quantum dots in paint and being able to program the paint to emit different colours of light. That’s really our goal.”

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays