Ketra’s headquarters are located in an unassuming office park nestled along the leafy fringe of the Barton Creek Greenbelt in southwest Austin, Texas. The modest, three-story, red-brick-and-mirrored-glass buildings surrounded by landscaped parking lots could easily pass for Palo Alto, Mountain View, or some other Silicon Valley town in California.
The comparison is apt because, while Ketra is a lighting company, its founders, Horace Ho and David Knapp, are semiconductor engineers and entrepreneurs. They started the company six years ago after noticing certain deficiencies in LED lighting: It was harsh, it flickered, it didn’t dim warmly, it tended to produce a lot of blue light, and there was color variability from LED to LED. The color and quality of the light produced by a single module also changed as the diode decayed over time. Like fluorescent lighting, it was not very pleasant, and not at all like natural light. Ho and Knapp thought they could fix these issues, not by inventing the LED anew, but by developing a microchip that would regulate the flow of electricity to the light source, improving its performance and consistency, and giving it the same dynamic range of light as is found in the natural world.
“What humans have evolved under are two sources: the sun and fire,” says Ketra CEO Nav Sooch (shown at left), who joined the company in 2011. “We find that during the middle of the day we love the bright cool light that sunlight provides. It makes you feel fresh and alive. At night, the soothing warm light that fire provides is also really comforting. At Ketra, we saw the opportunity with LEDs to create that naturally occurring cycle and have light that feels more natural indoors.”
Like audio speakers, which can act as both loudspeakers and microphones, LEDs can both emit and receive light. Ketra designed a module in which most of the LEDs produce light and some receive it. These monitor LEDs send the information they’ve gathered back to the driver chip. If there is any change, the chip adjusts the frequency of the electrical current feeding the LED emitters. The effect of this closed feedback loop is that the chip can correct the LED module and maintain a consistent light level and color temperature. It can also dim the color temperature—from 10,000K down to 1400K—to produce warm, flicker-free light. With a little programming, it can put on a “circadian show,” mimicking the dynamic qualities of natural light throughout the course of the day and night. Ketra also equipped the driver chip with radio frequency capabilities, allowing it to talk to other modules and to be controlled wirelessly.
The company’s initial idea was to sell its technology to established lighting manufacturers, but under Sooch’s leadership they put together a complete lighting system instead—from light source to fixture, user interface, and control module. “Making a great light is about more than just the chip: it’s the emitter, the optics, the interface,” says Brett Paulson, Ketra’s vice president of sales. “Other manufacturers don’t have the capability we have with our chip. We said, ‘Why don’t we bring on a team to do everything in-house, design a system that is easy to use and elegant, where you don’t have to worry about compatibility?’ ”
Now with about 62 employees, Ketra has semiconductor chip specialists, software and firmware programmers, mechanical engineers, industrial designers, and optics and lighting experts. “I think we have a technical team that is unmatched in the industry,” Sooch says.
In order to continue to hone each element of its stand-alone system, Ketra has also called upon the experience of the specifiers and lighting designers who use its products. Ketra often brings groups to its headquarters for presentations by its engineering and design teams, and asks for their guests’ feedback on prototypes that are in development. “Feedback is very important to us,” says Paulson. “We’re only going to become great by listening to great people.”
Ketra’s current product line includes an A-series, a PAR-style S38, and linear accent lamps; interfaces that include wall-mountable and tabletop touch pads, mobile device apps, and computer application software; and wireless and wired control modules. Its control system is capable of interfacing with fans and electronic shading systems, and is compatible with other companies’ products, so a project can be specified top-to-bottom with only Ketra products, or using a mix of luminaires from other manufacturers. “The goal is to make it easy,” says Paulson. “We don’t want them [designers] to get calls on commissioning. It has to be easy from spec, to installation, to when the end user uses it in their space.”
To date, the company’s systems have mostly been deployed in the corporate and commercial realms, and it is making headway in high-end residential and museums as well. Ketra has chosen a “direct-to-designer” route for its marketing strategy, which has allowed the company to focus on perfecting its systems and expanding its product range. “We’re going to keep releasing new form factors,” says Paulson. “We want to have all the elements you need for any space.”
But Ketra has bigger goals than just expanding its luminaire and lamp offerings, it’s planning to stay at the forefront of a revolution in the lighting industry. “We’re trying to create a new category for electric lighting options—a category called natural electric light,” Sooch says. The company has even released a manifesto that casts it as an upstart, barging its way into a static world in desperate need of change. “Ketra is an innovation that follows an age-old axiom: Lighting should be dynamic,” the manifesto reads. “A fluid presence in our lives—like sunshine, firelight and the soft shine of the moon—lighting should shift in accordance with the time, your mood, or the task at hand. It should be yours to control, yours to design, yours to enjoy. Lighting, finally, after all this time, should be a comfort.”