Novelist Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home again,” but don’t tell that to Mike Grather.
One of the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center’s most successful graduates is back at the business incubator to build his second business with plans to tackle a technology that was just coming into its own when he sold Luminaire Testing Laboratories in 2010. Working again with business partner Tracy Silvert, Grather is getting underway with LightLab International Allentown, which will provide a testing and research resource for manufacturers of LED bulbs and fixtures.
“The main reason we are getting back into light-testing is because we feel we have a lot of expertise in the area,” Grather said. “We want to start working with the LED manufacturers to help them distinguish their products from their competitors.”
Luminiare Testing Labs (LTL) was founded in 1988 and was the first client in the Bridgeworks program. Grather, a Salisbury Township native now living in Slatington, joined the company in 1995 after graduating from Penn State and purchased LTL in 1998. Silvert, of Weisenberg Township, joined the team in 1999. By the time LTL was sold it had grown into a $2 million per year annual revenue organization employing nine people.
“This is the story every business incubator looks for,” said Anthony Durante, program manager for Allentown Economic Development Corporation. “We are bringing back an entrepreneur who had successfully grown and exited a company that originated in our program. The team is back because they know firsthand the benefits of being part of a program like ours.”
“We were there at the onset of the LED movement. They were expensive and there was a lot of flash involved in the debut,” he said. “Now, almost every manufacturer has multiple LED products. We are comparing why this LED is better than that LED…”
“And helping them refine it,” Silvert says, finishing the sentence. “We can serve as the research and development lab – an outsource testing lab – for many of these companies.”
The testing will provide the base that will allow manufacturers to accurately portray their Energy Star and LED Lighting Facts labeling, the brother-and-sister business partners say. “There are others out there but we feel we are different because of the years of expertise we bring to the industry,” Grather said.
Although LTL worked extensively in the LED market during its introduction, its original focus was incandescent and compact and linear fluorescent lighting.
“The regular incandescent bulbs used a lot of energy, had a short life and generated a lot of heat. Compact fluorescents had a longer life and lower heat, but people didn’t like them in homes because they produced a cold light, they would flicker and they were not as long-lasting as had been advertised,” Grather explains. “People wanted to go with something more energy efficient but didn’t see that as an alternative.
“LEDs have the better energy efficiency, better flexibility and good color. They can be made very warm and can look just like an incandescent light,” he continues. “But the manufacturers need the numbers behind them to back that up. It speaks to an industry where people say ‘If I am going to spend the extra money, I want to know that it is worth it.’ For that, you need testing.”
Grather and Silvert are assembling their new lab now and expect to be operational by April 1st. But both say they are happy to be back at Bridgeworks, where revitalization has brought in several new business tenants over the past year.
“There are a lot of resources here that you wouldn’t otherwise have as a small business,” Grather said, as he and Silvert noted the assistance they have received with the lab fit-out, the conference room and meeting space and a variety of business resources available to startups at the incubator. “Plus, there is a big change in the collaborative atmosphere here. There is an extra, renewed vibe about the place.”