PhillyDeals: Spotlight is on LEDs at Lightfair conference

Light-emitting diodes - LEDs - have been a technology of the future long enough that shares of companies that specialize in the energy-frugal, digital-friendly, but costly-to-make lamps have already soared to dizzying levels and cratered back into the real world.

This happened before most consumers knew what they were.

The boom is back this week at the Convention Center, where 24,000 lighting engineers, designers, buyers and marketers have gathered for this week's Lightfair conference. LED lights and the "smart sockets" that can guide them via wireless software are on display everywhere, as the industry gears for the 2014 U.S. ban on the purchase of Thomas Edison-style incandescent bulbs.

Indeed, share prices for LED stocks Veeco Instruments, of Plainview, N.Y., and Germany-based Aixtron rose more than 10 percent in trading Tuesday.

This LED-led gathering is "a much bigger show" than in 2011, when Lightfair was last in Philadelphia, promoting the mini-fluorescent bulbs that have quickly aged, said Tom Benton, of Greenville, S.C.-based Hubbell Lighting Inc. Benton was sent north to promote 12,000-lumen LED downlights and other LED products made in plants like Hubbell's Columbia Lighting plant in Bristol.

Center City Philadelphia "simply does not have enough hotel rooms" to handle the crowds at this year's conference, marveled Jonathan "Jed" Dorsheimer, stocks analyst at Cannacord Financial Inc. in Boston. Some attendees are bunking in the suburbs.

Dorsheimer's firm, which hopes to profit by selling securities issued by LED makers, was corralling company managers and potential investors: "We'll fill them up with some of the best food and wine the city has to offer and make them sit through impassioned speeches of where the industry is headed," he said.

Even with a government mandate, LEDs won't immediately replace incandescent bulbs. "People used to paying 60 cents for an old-style lightbulb might find it easy to pay $2 for a compact fluorescent," Dorsheimer said. But only some of those might be willing to pay extra for longer-lasting LEDs, and only after the price gets under $10, which won't likely happen before at least next year, he added.

It will take years to replace all the "dumb" bulbs now in use. So LED bulls are busy promoting such features as the more-complete spectrum of LED light, which makes people and merchandise more attractive than fluorescents, says Eric Kim, president of California-based Soraa Inc.

"Once you go to an LED, it has the ability to have its own Internet protocol address," Dorsheimer said. "Old lighting was binary. It's on or it's off. But these, with the existing infrastructure, you can send signals."

He offered examples: Help chain stores send customers special promotions when they walk into an aisle. Change a home's color with the season. Influence the moods of students, patients, shoppers or prisoners.

LEDs are already popular with medical-marijuana growers, who like being able to preprogram artificial sunlight, Dorsheimer told clients in a recent report.

New applications will keep LED demand strong for years after the bulb-switching mandate, Dorsheimer concluded. Maybe way beyond, if the government ban turns into a stimulus for a new generation of digital-gadget growth.


Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.