Sensor Electronic Technology
Columbia firm aims for consumer market with $20 million expansion
Victoria Shatalova (front) works at a die-bonder while project manager Yuri Bilenko (left) and president and CEO Remis Gaska (right) look over some packaged LEDs.
Photography by Jeff Amberg
There’s a new light shining on Columbia’s manufacturing horizon, and you can’t see it because it’s invisible to the human eye. Columbia’s Sensor Electronic Technology, Inc. (SETi), the only commercial producer of ultraviolet light emitting diode (UV LED) lights in the world, recently announced a $20 million expansion that will create more than 150 new jobs at its two facilities on Atlas Road and Atlas Court.
Home grown in Columbia, SETi has developed world-leading technology for manufacturing these tiny UV lights since 2002, backed by support from multiple government agencies including Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Navy and Army, NASA and the National Science Foundation, to name a few. Since the release of its first products in 2004, the company has been very successful in providing UV LEDs to highly specialized markets including defense, homeland security, life sciences and environmental monitoring. Now more than 70 people strong, SETi is investing in an expansion that will allow the company to aggressively pursue its potential in its existing markets and open new opportunities in healthcare, industrial and consumer markets.
It all started with a need by Homeland Security to use a miniature ultraviolet light source to detect airborne biological agents after several anthrax attacks on the public following 9/11. Smart thinking by the engineers at SETi led to the development of the world’s first UV LED. Development continued as SETi found more defense-related applications, and in 2007 DARPA announced SETi as one of its top success stories. More and more government agencies have since come to SETi with UV LED based application needs, and these LEDs are even to be blasted into space on a satellite next summer.
SETi has been continually improving the performance of UV LEDs as well as its production processes through ISO9001 and AS9100 certification in preparation for the demands of its new markets. With the new expansion, SETi’s UV LEDs are destined for consumer products and will be marketed as part of established national brands. Just what these products are and what they will do is a carefully guarded secret — for now.
Although UV LEDs are new to consumers, their visible counterparts are commonplace and are most familiar to people in LED TVs and Christmas lights. If you’ve been in the light bulb section of a home improvement store lately, you may have seen LEDs offered in traditional light-bulb shapes, albeit with fins and strange cages around them. If that wasn’t enough to catch your eye, the staggering claims on the packaging about these bulbs’ efficiency and longevity would certainly cause a double-take: these lights will last as long as 40 years.
SETi’s UV LEDs share these same characteristics. “They are incredibly energy efficient and last a very long time,” says Tim Bettles, director of marketing and sales for SETi. “But while the other LEDs are very bright, you can’t see ours.”
SETi manufactures UV LEDs that produce varied ranges of the UV spectrum, depending on the application. UV-A LEDs are used in a multitude of industrial applications from sensing, monitoring, detection and even curing polymers and inks. UV-B LEDs are used in healthcare applications, such as for the treatment of vitiligo, psoriasis, eczema, vitamin D deficiency and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
UV-C light produced by the sun is blocked by the ozone layer, so it doesn’t reach the Earth. This is the part of the UV spectrum that is the most exciting to the consumer marketplace: SETi’s UV-C LEDs create a powerful light that kills bacteria, viruses and mold spores. Simply put, the world hates germs, and SETi offers far more than hand sanitizer. It makes powerful, affordable, defense-grade UV LEDs that can be used in consumer products to kill bacteria, viruses and mold spores just by shining light on them. The market is germophobic, ready and waiting — and this Columbia company is going for it.
UV light is already used to disinfect water at bottling plants and municipal systems, but the industrial bulbs are large and bulky and not ideally suited in consumer-applications. UV LEDs are small and intense, opening up tremendous possibilities for water and other disinfection treatments at home and in other areas of our lives. “By bringing UV LEDs to the home, we make UV disinfection safe and user-friendly,” Tim says.
Think of all the things and places you would like to disinfect. Now think of how easy it would be to simply pass a ray of light through drinking water, across countertops, floors, children’s toys, toothbrushes, toilet seats — you name it. Better than a spray, better than scrubbing. And those future possibilities you imagine are expanding along with SETi.
“There are major implications for developing nations and for use after natural disasters,” Tim adds. More than one billion people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water. This compact technology has the potential to be an affordable, effective way to make drinking water safe for millions of people around the globe, preventing river blindness and a host of other parasitic and water-borne diseases. It could also be used after water main breaks and natural disasters, when water systems become contaminated and unreliable.
The company, headed by its founder, Dr. Remis Gaska, is planning great things here in Columbia “We’ve got good universities and good technical people nearby. This is a highly technical manufacturing process, and we need good engineers.” says Tim. Employees receive help to further their educations, and with a competitive salary and benefits package, workforce turnover is low.
The future is bright for this exciting technology and this world-class Columbia company.