Safeguarding innovation

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Astrophysicist Neil Lubart, Ph.D. thought it was time to retire after a long and successful career that included leading the development team that developed the first laptop computer at IBM. He resurfaced a few years later, touting a technology solution that caught the eye of a local entrepreneur.

Tim Wojciechowski, a business manager with high tech ideas and aspirations, says he was looking for an electronics investment opportunity when he heard about innovative research in liquid crystal displays. Together, they founded Cleveland-based Trivium Technologies Inc. in February 2000 to commercialize Lubart’s innovation.

That, they say, was the easy part. Protecting the intellectual property was the challenge.

A flawed looking glass

LCD technology lit the path that took the computer out of the dark ages. The back lighting of an LCD screen brings the world to our fingertips through laptops and personal digital assistants. But don’t try to read the screen outside or at an angle.

Wojciechowski, Trivium CEO and president, recognized the shortcomings as opportunities. He created the research and development company as a supporting infrastructure of protection. Wojciechowski believes
Lubart’s film has a definitive advantage with PDAs and laptop computers, but the potential extends far beyond flat panel displays.

Watches, automotive navigation screens and cockpit avionics are also a part of the growing outlet.

“We believe the technology has a much broader base beyond LCDs that would include solar panel technology for power generation, fuel cells, optical networking and passive connectors and wave guides,” Wojciechowski says.

Trivium’s product, the Trivium Diodic Lens, brings quality improvements to the industry by making LCD screens brighter. The lens improves contrast and clarity, increases viewing angles and reduces screen glare and eyestrain.

More important, it optimizes the LCD in all lighting conditions and reduces power consumption, thus extending battery life.

Harnessing ambient light is like putting the sun on the payroll. “So on a notebook where you may have four hours of battery life, you could triple it to, say, 12 hours,” Wojciechowski says.

Even in the glaring summer sun, a laptop’s computer screen would appear clear and readable. In bright, ambient light the Trivium film enables the computer to turn off the power-consuming backlight and be viewable in a reflective mode.

A piece of global pie

Any start-up venture is a risk, but potential growth within the LCD industry is so vast that even cutting a small piece of the pie could yield huge profits. According to Wojciechowski, the entire display industry stands at $30 billion. Experts project growth to $70 billion in about five years. Tom Lash, Trivium COO, says market commercialization of the Trivium Lens is about one year away.

The bigger risk, however, would be losing the competitive edge if proprietary technology were not safeguarded. According to Lash, the company’s first steps included seeking legal guidance and searching the U.S. Patent Office to review relevant patents and claims already on file.

“You attempt to secure the idea; perhaps there’s some very unique characteristic of the idea,” he explains. “You want to secure the process for manufacturing, secure the materials that go into the product you’re making and you’ve got to protect it not only within the U.S. but more importantly, world wide.”

A team from Trivium, along with Ray Miller, the head of the Intellectual Property Group at Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff LLP, spent a week digging through relevant patents filed to better understand what other companies are doing.

“It was one more reassurance that we have a very unique proposition,” Lash explains. “We’re just building an additional wall around the technology.”

Patent protection extends beyond the beginnings of a business and extends several years into the manufacturing process. Competitors will attempt to engineer around new innovations, and because LCDs are primarily manufactured outside the U.S., Lash says it is extremely important to understand which countries honor U.S. laws and which do not.

“The Far East has a reputation for not respecting the U.S. patent process and many times they (foreign businesses) will try and do product knock-offs,” Lash says.

Improving an existing market

Powerhouses like Philips Electronics and Samsung lead the pack in research, sales and manufacturing of LCDs. Only a half a dozen other suppliers have broken into the business. A face-off with the high tech giants would surely mean a quick and painful end. But offering improvements in a mature market means putting the giants on your side.

Philips manufactures LCDs and controls 40 percent of the industry. According to Lash, executives at Philips believe Trivium’s technology will offer a substantial performance improvement to its existing products.

“We offer them a piece film that’s passive in nature, that works and fits right into their current manufacturing process in a non-disruptive manner,” says Lash, adding that he expects Philips to be one of Trivium’s biggest customers and a key strategic partner.

The market possibilities also caught the attention of Carol Latham, CEO and president of Thermagon Inc., a producer of thermally conductive polymers in electronic packaging. Latham joined Trivium’s Board of Directors this year and Wojciechowski says he believes her business experience in the Far East will provide valuable guidance as Trivium looks to position itself there.

Birthing the idea

While the most important first steps in developing the technology were to “make sure that it remained Trivium’s and try and bullet proof it,” Wojciechowski says technological advancements cannot wait for the T’s to be crossed and the I’s to be dotted. While Wojciechowski concentrated on the red tape, personnel of the small five-person company continued to build applications around the technology.

“You’re always worried that someone’s going to beat you to the punch or find their way around you.” admits Wojciechowski. “We view this as a technology platform, not a one-trick pony.”

Development of a beta prototype occurred last year and was validated by optical scientists at the University of Texas. Negotiations are underway to find a manufacturer to create a polymer-based working prototype film. Once completed, the film will be imbedded into actual equipment for testing.

“It’s an exciting opportunity and we really have our nose to the grind stone trying to develop this into a full platform technology,” says Wojciechowski.

Seed capital became an issue several months after Trivium first turned on the lights. The NASDAQ began crashing at the heels of the dot-coms and Cleveland’s financial environment became a deterrent to raising money.

“The venture capitalists here say they like to invest in Cleveland companies, but the fact is I don’t think they still trust a lot of the ventures or a lot of the business plans they see here,” says Wojciechowski. “They think, ‘If it looks so good, why is it coming out of Cleveland?'”

Product development in Greater Cleveland was a strategy, not an accident. A homegrown Clevelander, Wojciechowski says, “We decided from a cost and resource standpoint, Cleveland would be an excellent place to start up the company.”

Northeast Ohio is home to Kent State University’s Liquid Crystal Institute, the original developers of LCD technology. Trivium did succeed through two rounds of financing despite the economy and attracted local angel investors. Wojciechowski says believes the company is in good financial health as it continues to shed light on the possibilities of what may be.

How to reach: Trivium Tehcnologies, (216) 574-6225 or www.trivium.com.