Of the companies in the Luminate NY incubator, the “typical” startup is common; a company with an idea and a product seeking a manufacturing hub. Rochester’s Molecular Glasses Inc., founded by Mike Molaire, a former researcher at Eastman Kodak, is a bit different. Since its founding in 2013, Molecular Glasses has patented a noncrystallizable material for organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs. It’s a technology that can be contracted out for production by chemical companies locally and then sold for use in television displays, light fixtures and virtually any other OLED application.
OLEDs have made waves in the display world since their inception in 1987 by being a low-energy-consuming, highly detailed alternative to traditional LED backlit displays. OLEDs illuminate an extremely thin film of organic material through application of an electrical current. Molecular Glasses’ product serves as the host material which holds the OLEDs in place. If it sounds complicated, chief operating officer Mark Juba, a fellow Eastman Kodak veteran, has a handy metaphor.
“It’s like a gelatin fruit salad that my mother-in law made for all the holidays,” Juba said. “So think of it as the light-emitting layer of OLED. So you have the fruit, the molecules that when you run a voltage through them, they give you light. We make the gelatin that they go into, and the benefit of our gelatin in comparison to Brand-X is that we can put a higher amounts of fruit in it, and you can keep the pieces of fruit all separated, because if pieces of fruit start to come together, then you lose performance in the layer.”
The result is a highly detailed, malleable display that can be used in a litany of applications—from smartphones to panel lighting and everything in between. Molecular Glasses received a patent for the noncrystallizable display back in 2014, and since then has made the rounds in the incubator and startup world. In 2014, parent company Molaire Consulting LLC joined Cornell University professor Brett Fors for development of four new molecular glass materials, as part of the university’s Jumpstart program. In 2016, the company came in third in High Tech Rochester’s (now NextCorps) Venture Capital Challenge, receiving $2,500 and $1,000 rent credit. The company also served in clean energy incubator Nexus-NY’s cohort 2.
But despite a potentially revolutionary patent and nearly a century of tech experience shared between the company’s leadership, the business end of things is where Molecular Glasses found a roadblock, and where Luminate NY stepped in.
“When we were getting into the Nexus program, it was at a time when we were just figuring out what we had and who was the potential customer,” Molaire said. “That’s exactly what the Nexus program was doing, and now one year later, we’ve begun making material and are getting ready to go to market. In fact, in maybe three weeks, we’ll be in Los Angeles at our first trade show, at Display Week, which is where everyone in the display world comes to meet. So in the Luminate program, what they’re preparing us for is getting ready to meet the customer, get ready to raise money and also start getting all of the marketing. We’re now in the position to begin that marketing, so the Luminate incubator really came at the right time for us.”
It’s a point Luminate NY managing director and serial startup entrepreneur Sujatha Ramanujan often makes; a company can have great tech and profound ideas, but if the business model and network is not there, they’re destined to stay on the ground. Helping establish the business end of tech concepts has, therefore, been a key focus of the incubator, and both Juba and Molaire agree that it is, in fact, working.
“What’s impressed me with Luminate is that the emphasis is very much on optics, photonics— what I would call the ‘techy’ side,” Juba said. “But one of the things that I think that we’ve gotten out of Luminate is exposure to people who have expertise on the sales and marketing side. It can really help us, as Mike said, with developing our marketing plan, developing our sales plan and using that to drive our sales business. I’m not sure that, without Luminate, that we would have been successful on our own networking with all of those people, developing all of those contacts and benefiting from that kind of mentoring.”
And while Molecular Glasses is seeking more of a contract relationship with local chemical production companies rather than a traditional manufacturing hub, there is no question of the company’s future in Rochester. Whether the company takes the $1 million prize on Demo Day, June 28 or not, all plans point to Rochester as being the company’s permanent home.
“We believe in staying in Rochester,” Molaire said. “We have needs as far as partners and chemical companies go, but (Eastman Kodak) Business Park is one that can fit that bill.”
Spotlight on Luminate
Ten companies composed of some of the brightest minds in the field of optics, imaging and photonics are fine-tuning their technologies inside NextCorps’ Luminate accelerator. The winners of November’s first Lightning Awards, these companies each received $100,000 in funding, free residency in the accelerator and access to High Tech Rochester’s web of resources and mentoring. In June, the most promising of these 10 will receive a total of $2 million in follow-on funding. Leading up to June, the Rochester Business Journal will feature profiles of the companies holding the keys to the next chapter in Rochester’s history as the world’s imaging center.