Published in Crain’s Chicago Business on May 06, 2013
We’ve all seen people wearing glasses that darken when the sun blazes brightly. Michael Stacey foresees office windows screening out the too-hot sun as well, though with a flip of a switch.
Together with a couple of engineering undergrads at the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Stacey has won a series of business plan competitions and more than $1 million in prize money and grants for their SmarterShade polarizing glass films. Lono LLC, their startup, is working with film manufacturers in Asia and supplying samples to France’s Saint-Gobain SA, one of the world’s biggest building-products companies.
By blocking sunlight, SmarterShade can keep interior temperatures from rising, reducing air-conditioning costs. Another savings: The darkened windows also could do away with the need for conventional window treatments. “Blinds and shades have been around for hundreds of years, but we haven’t seen much affordable shading innovation for windows until now,” says Mr. Stacey, Lono’s 37-year-old CEO. “Eventually people will be able to tint their windows remotely using their smartphones.”
Polarizing technology has been around for 30 years. But most designs required an electric current to darken the window, which cost too much to be worth it, Mr. Stacey says. SmarterShade uses a manual control switch that changes the position of the two films applied to the glass to block sunlight.
“We’re trying to keep offices and homes at a constant, comfortable temperature, and this technology is a whole different, sophisticated way of shading,” says Ed Woodbury, president of Chicago real estate developers McCaffery Interests Inc. and a judge in the recent Clean Energy Challenge. “I think it has the potential for being a game changer in our industry.”
The contest’s other judges agreed and awarded the SmarterShade a $50,000 prize in April.
Mr. Stacey has launched several businesses since high school, starting with a landscaping outfit. While pursuing his MBA at Notre Dame in 2007—he got his undergrad degree in business logistics from Pennsylvania State University in 1997—Mr. Stacey was looking for a great idea to enter a business plan competition. Reading a message board, he found two undergrads studying mechanical engineering and industrial design, Will McLeod and Ryan Tatzel, who had developed a way to apply two films to glass, then move them to allow more or less light through. They won $20,000 in the contest.
The team initially targeted the recreational vehicle market, in part because the industry is clustered near South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame is located. “It’s hard to put blinds on a moving vehicle, and people spend a lot of money on this kind of leisure so they’d probably like the cool factor of this feature,” Mr. Stacey says. “We got great feedback from RV makers, but our prototype wasn’t very manufacturable yet.”
Since then, the SmarterShade trio has taken home more prize money and almost $875,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation and others. Mr. Stacey quit his full-time job as a business consultant in Chicago in 2011.