“Our light bulb uses three times less energy than others, is more effective, and, thanks to digital technology, smarter: it can see, hear, talk and smell.”
When Franck Mirabelli, the 58-year-old boss of Ledex (a family business specialising in street lighting and sports field projector lights), talks about his invention, he literally lights up: and with good reason. Mirabelli’s smart light bulb is a shining example of “Digital for All, Now” for towns, residents and the state – provided there is investment and political support. In an ever-more connected world, the government needs to “recognise the best French inventions and promote them in order to show off our digital nation,” says Franck Mirabelli.
A SMART LIGHT BULB USING FRENCH KNOW-HOW
In 2010, Mirabelli, who had spent thirty-two years making illuminated signs for supermarket chain Leclerc and had twenty years’ experience in LED technology never imagined that his idea for a “light bulb of the future” would take off the way it did. It all began by chance, when his wife left a glass of oil in his workshop.
“I put an LED in the oil and noticed that the bottom of the glass was lit up really brightly. The lower I went, the brighter it shone. And I knew I had something.”
He then took a syringe used for administering medicine to horses, filled it with oil and some LEDs, and stuck an E40 bulb base onto it. He took the prototype to China to have the bulb manufactured. “The Chinese understood what I wanted but the quality wasn’t up to standard,” he explains. Back in France he had more luck with Horizon Telecom, a French company employing 31 people and specialising in making miniature printed circuit boards.
“My light bulb was originally meant to just switch on and off, and use 50% less energy than traditional light bulbs. But Horizon Télécom told me I could go one better and install a camera, seismic detector, GPS, etc.”
The smart light bulb is therefore a 100% French creation: a small (8 employees) local outfit called Altilum which specialises in remote night-time detection of street lighting using a helicopter subsequently came on board.
“The French are far more innovative than most of our neighbours, but we don’t have the resources or political backing. Getting a meeting with an MP is a tricky business. No one wants to take the financial risk of investing in digital: they won’t budge an inch on that front.”
The entrepreneur goes on to talk about the funding he got for his invention, which won the Salon des Maires et des Collectivités Locales (local council and authority) prize and the EDF competition.
“The BPI (Banque Public d’Investissement) lent us €100,000 for our project. It was very good of them, but I can’t do anything with that sort of money! Since we started, I’ve sunk €300,000 of my own money into the project. If we’d been lent €500 000, now, we’d be the world champions! I’d have created dozens of jobs and we could have given Philips and Osram a run for their money.”
A MINI COMPUTER FOR A MORE AGILE CITY
Dutch and German companies, which are very well-established in France, are Franck Mirabelli’s nemesis (“they could literally ruin me any day.”) Aware of the potential of the magic bulb, Philips have approached him. “Imagine if they put 100 or 150 million down for my patent.” But he insists he won’t give in to the lure of foreign investors and hopes that the French politicians will sit up and take notice. Politicians like Didier Cazabonne, Deputy Mayor of Bordeaux, who has opened doors for him and brought the smart light bulb to the attention of Mayor Alain Juppé. Other mayors soon followed: almost ten million light bulbs will be replaced in 2015 to light cities, tunnels, motorways, etc.
“Town councils are beginning to realise that not only will they make energy savings of 50% with this bulb that uses 180 Watts instead of 400, but thanks to the different options available, benefit from the potential of digital technology, whilst saving money.”
Franck Mirabelli’s light bulb, which has a useful life of 60,000 hours (compared with 14,000 for traditional bulbs) can incorporate GPS, Wi-Fi, an IP address and video camera, and thus film whatever the light lights up and know where there are high levels of CO2 in a town, detect earthquakes or radioactive leaks around a power station, change colour in fog, take water meter readings, track down criminals, locate faulty light bulbs without lighting up the whole town… In short, it’s an amazing mini-computer that will make cities more agile.
“Anything can and should be done now, we have the capabilities. But the United States have no qualms about stealing or buying up patents: we need support, in particular from politicians, to maintain and nurture this country’s grey matter! When it comes to digital developments, we’re lagging behind the USA and China. But with investments, we could catch up with them, provided we keep the expertise in France. I’d be really sorry to see my light bulb go abroad.”
The inventor’s enthusiasm flags a little, and then picks up again. “I can light a whole house without electricity: the product is ready. I’m also working with the police and customs on another product.” It’s all top secret at the moment, although he can’t keep quiet about his ultimate dream: to light up Paris.
“The Germans and Dutch currently light up Paris. It’s not right: our French-made light bulbs are far better quality. Anne Hidalgo, (the Mayor of Paris, Ed) following Didier Cazabonne’s recommendations, has said she’ll talk to us about what we can do about it. It would be amazing if we could light up the City of Lights!”