Glowee: And then there was (bioluminescent) light

Glowee is a start-up supported by the KIC InnoEnergy Highway® since 2015. Glowee develops a disruptive lighting system that does not consume any electricity, requires no power supply, emits few CO2 and light pollution.

The world’s oceans are not just a source of wave power and food. For one young entrepreneur they are the inspiration behind her innovative start-up Glowee.

Twenty-five-year-old design graduate Sandra Rey is a woman with a mission. For three years she has had a vision of a world lit by an inexhaustible, living and eco-friendly source of bioluminescence, the phenomenon that enables fireflies to glow and anglerfish to lure their prey. “I want to see a world where bioluminescence is part of everyday life,” says Sandra. Glowee, the company she founded, develops biological systems that reproduce this chemical reaction. The result? A light source that needs no electricity supply or infrastructure.

In 2013 while still a student, Sandra teamed up with three other innovators to enter the Paris Universities’ ArtScience Competition, whose theme that year was synthetic biology. After watching a documentary about bioluminescence, her group came up with a set of luminescent window stickers, winning the prize. Sandra took her idea to several Paris-based business incubators and by 2015 had obtained funding, formed a limited company, acquired two new colleagues (Financial Director Geoffroy de Bérail and Research Director Samuel Juillot), and most importantly had produced a working product that emitted light for a few seconds.

Business culture

What Glowee makes is not a manufactured product but a raw material, a kind of gel made up of (nonpathogenic and nontoxic) bacteria in a nutrient solution in which the microbes thrive. The resulting culture comes in transparent pods of various shapes and sizes that emit a glow until the microorganisms eventually die.

The beauty of this idea lies in its economy: instead of being extracted or processed, the raw material is cultivated simply by giving the bacteria an environment in which they thrive. The product’s main eco-footprint is the organic pod it comes in, but Glowee plans to collect and incinerate the pods once they are spent. Sandra claims that the product’s entire life cycle equates to half the CO2 emissions of an equivalent LED system. What’s more, the cold, soft light it emits will not disturb urban fauna and the system’s inherent portability makes it eminently suitable for isolated communities and facilities. The product has a host of marketing applications, from shop windows to road signs and street furniture. In the longer term, it may be used in building materials and even in paints.

Help and hindrance

In July 2013 a new regulation governing the illumination of non-residential buildings at night came into effect France, opening up a new marketing opportunity for Glowee. Sandra’s business plan is to sell a service rather than a product, designing tailor-made applications and then retrieving the spent pods once their job is done. Two kinds of service are on the cards: bespoke designs for specific events and a subscription model in which Glowee bioluminescent products would for example grace the shop window displays of retail outlets, replaced periodically by new designs.

However, Sandra and her team are also keen to avoid falling foul of France’s genetically modified microorganism (GMM) regulations, more complex than the law on GMOs. Introducing a disruptive innovation to the market is likely to create a headache when it comes to government licensing requirements.

Crowdfunding triumph: €700,000 in nine days

Selected to be the French Tech Ambassador at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris in December 2015, Glowee took a big gamble, using the conference to launch its first product. In a few short months the team had to increase the fluid’s bioluminescence longevity from a few seconds to 72 hours of stable light, resulting in its first product for the events market: organic-resin pods 10 centimetres across full of bioluminescent fluid.

“We took a big risk but it worked,” says Sandra with a grin. The resulting media exposure enabled Sandra and the team to pause for breath, consolidate their R&D strategy and take stock of their financial requirements. In May this year Sandra launched a crowdfunding campaign on WiSEED, raising €700,000 in just nine days and bringing the total raised since Glowee was founded to €1.2 million. Now twelve-strong, the company is developing a product that will last from one to four weeks. “We’re working hard to open up as many applications as possible for our product,” says Sandra.

The future looks bright for Glowee…

Article initially published in La Tribune (August 2016)