By Eric Peterson | Feb 08, 2021
Blue laser systems
Co-founders Dr. Mark Zediker and Jean-Michel Pelaprat teamed up on NUBURU -- Japanese for "new blue" -- after decades of experience with lasers. "They're deep technical and industry experts," says Gilliland. "They've both worked with large companies, and they've both worked at startups."
Zediker and Pelaprat launched the company after obtaining seed funding in 2015. "Blue laser technology is relatively new," says Gilliland. "We saw the physics advantage of using blue for potential applications in 3D printing and metal welding."
NUBURU is "a two-stage company," he continues. The first stage involves developing the hardware: "a high-power, high-brightness laser system that can be used for industrial applications, like welding the copper in batteries."
The company delivered its first lasers to customers in 2019; companies like Panasonic are currently testing the technology. "Every cell phone has 200 copper welds, so anyone who makes consumer electronics, there's an opportunity to use our product to do better and faster welds," says Gilliland.
The second stage will take that base laser and integrate it into a suite of products for manufacturers of batteries, consumer electronics, and other products due to start hitting the market in 2022. "We have a complete road map," says Gilliland.
Metal 3D printing is another key market; a commercial demonstration is on track for the first half of 2021. "For 3D printing, we would be the light engine for any of the 3D printers out there. That would include companies like EOS, Desktop Metal, HP, GE, things like that," says Gilliland, noting that NUBURU aims to catalyze the market with innovation. "It [3D printing] has had tremendous impact, but it's not had the full impact people anticipated because it's been slow, you can't make big parts, it's hard to do metals. We believe our products -- high-power, high-brightness blue lasers -- solves many of those problems."
The status quo -- a high-powered infrared laser -- is not absorbed by metals as efficiently as a blue laser. A blue laser is 13X more efficient working with copper than an infrared laser, and 66X more efficient working with gold, says Gilliland. "With blue, the outcome is much better. It's stronger mechanically and stronger electrically for many applications."
Backed by numerous patents, NUBURU's technology is "10 times bigger, 10 times faster," he adds. "We can make big parts and small parts -- like microelectromechanical systems. And our parts are more net-to-shape. Once you build them, you don't have to do a lot of post-processing to finalize the shape."
"If you look at the providers of lasers around the world, there are very few that are pursuing visible light at this time," says Gilliland. "We are one of those, and we are the one producing the highest-brightness blue lasers in the world."
Manufacturing blue lasers involves notably tight tolerances, says Gilliland. "Because the wavelength is not as big, it means the precision is more than twice as high. So we have to align everything and build everything with twice the precision of anyone in the industry doing infrared because of that."
It follows that NUBURU invested "millions of dollars" in automation at its 30,000-square-foot facility in Centennial. "Many if not all lasers that are built today are built by hand," he says. "We put a lot of effort into automating what we do. We had to because of the precision issue."
The supply chain includes electronics, photonics, and other components largely sourced from suppliers in North America and Europe. "We put a lot of effort into defining the specifications and working with those vendors to make products that meet those specifications," says Gilliland.
"We've created an architecture that is really quite sophisticated to do what's called spectral beam combining," he continues. "It allows us to multiplex a multitude of emitters into a spectrally beam-combined single output that is very high brightness and power."
Gilliland, an early investor in NUBURU, joined the company in summer 2020 following 22 years with Boston Consulting Group. "I led a technology practice area in North America, so I've worked with a lot of technology companies in various sectors," he says. "I've been working pretty diligently with the executive team and the board."
NUBURU closed on a $20 million Series B funding round in December 2020. Gilliland terms the investment as a stepping stone towards its long-term plans. "We have a plan to grow by 10X," he says. "We're at 30 employees now. My hope is, in the next two years, to be 300 or more employees."
Challenges: Working in a nascent space. "It takes time," says Gilliland. "The ecosystem of vendors -- the people who make lenses and diodes and materials for blue lasers -- is embryonic. Meaning every part we build, the material characterization in the blue is not as mature as what it is in the infrared, so it takes time."
Technical risk presents different challenges, he adds. "We're on the leading edge of technology. We know there are technical challenges we don't fully understand further out on our product road map."
Opportunities: For NUBURU's base industrial laser, it's electric vehicles and batteries. "Elon Musk talks a lot about the innovation in batteries needed to do what he envisions the future to be," says Gilliland. "We're a part of that, and we want to be a part of that."
As NUBURU follows its product road map, "3D printing is taking off," he continues. "We've already seen a pretty dramatic uptick in that market, so that will be a driver for us."
Defense work could also drive growth in the future. "Using industrial capabilities to build electric vehicles for the DoD and directed energy weapons," says Gilliland.
Needs: Talent and capital. "I always need the best industry talent I can get," says Gilliland, noting that NUBURU is always on the lookout for photonics, electronics, software, and mechanical engineers.
"For a small startup company, funding is always an issue," he adds. "That's a never-ending challenge that you have to pursue. We're acutely aware of that."