Meet the Honorees: James Tu, Chairman and CEO, Energy Focus Inc.

by | Feb 25, 2022

The Environment+Energy Leader honoree program is an annual list that recognizes the environment and energy “doers” who break trail in creating new solutions, programs, platforms, best practices and products to help their companies – or other companies – achieve greater success in commercial and industrial environment and energy management. Meet the Honorees… is an ongoing series that will feature one E+E Honoree from 2022 each week. See the complete list of 2022 Honorees here.

Meet James Tu, chairman and CEO of Energy Focus Inc.

Please tell us about your day-to-day activities.

James Tu: Each day I try to focus my energy and time on four key areas of responsibility:

First, setting and safeguarding our corporate vision while fine-tuning the strategies and plans to realize our vision, which is to be the most impactful human-centric lighting company in the world, optimizing human health, environmental sustainability and stakeholder wellbeing. Also related to fulfilling this responsibility is navigating the company through a fast-changing industry and global environment, while encouraging bold and outside-of-the-box thinking for us to innovate and evolve in a dynamic manner.

Second, championing our mission (“enlighten and inspire for better living”) and core values (“ATEFOI+K”: Accountability, Trust, Extraordinariness, Fun, Openness, Integrity and Kindness) which together form the fundamental fabric of our unique culture, and ensure that we do our best hiring, training, growing, incentivizing and retaining talent to strengthen our culture.

Third, planning ahead to bring and allocate the financial and talent resources needed to execute our growth plan as timely as possible.

Fourth, communicating truthfully and proactively and listening to our key stakeholders, including: employees, customers, suppliers and investors, and oversee the continuing expansion of these communities.

We have a very talented and hardworking team that executes our operational plans beautifully. Outside of these four major areas of responsibilities I strive to make sure I support our team in any way I can when I am needed. My focus each day can change dramatically depending on the priorities of the moment, and I often dive deeper into the details when those priorities are critical. For example, I might jump onto calls with our customers when there are key opportunities or challenges, join engineering meetings for product design, help communicate and align with our suppliers, or get an in-depth understanding of the issues so that I can advise on our new product launch plans.

Tell us about your customers’ biggest energy management challenges. How you are you helping them address those challenges?

JT: In a nutshell, Energy Focus aims to develop and deliver as well as help our customers adopt high quality, healthy, energy efficient and sustainable lighting systems. Our customers include world-leading, mission-critical facilities such as the US Navy, National Institutes of Health, Cleveland Clinic and many healthcare and educational organizations.

The speed of LED adoption has been nothing short of breathtaking over the past ten years during which time LED, which could save 50-90% electricity over incandescent and fluorescent lighting, has become the most impactful energy efficient technology for buildings of all types. That said, the adoption of LEDs in buildings today is still just around 30-40%, and industry-wide product quality and durability for LED lights has not made much progress. This is because, outside of some extremely enticing utility rebates, converting to more energy efficient lighting simply hasn’t been exciting or tremendously impactful for a lot of consumers and organizations.
The commoditization in LEDs, outside of high-end new construction projects, actually encourages short-term thinking by focusing on price and price alone. This commoditization has driven lighting companies to focus on volume and pricing instead of quality and innovation that could make LED lighting more impactful and exciting.

We believe that through our innovations we can do that by offering lighting systems that bring quality, health, efficiency and affordability that not only accelerate LED adoption but also improve general human wellbeing and environmental sustainability. As an example, our EnFocus lighting control platform, through a simple change of switches and lamps, can provide flicker-free, dimmable, color-tunable and autonomous circadian lighting to facilities where sleep and productivity is critical. Our EnFocus Circadian Lighting System eliminates the usually complex and costly wireless controls that have so far not been able to expand circadian lighting beyond a very small percentage of the market. EnFocus uniquely unlocks both the wellness potential of lighting and the energy efficiency of LEDs that have until now been under appreciated by the market.

Another major challenge — and opportunity — for us was born out of the pandemic. We started developing nUVo, a new line of UVC air disinfector products beginning in early 2020 when the pandemic first broke out. For more than a hundred years, ultraviolet light at the 254nm wavelength (UVC) has been proven to be highly effective in killing airborne pathogens. With our patent-pending technology, we can now safely apply UVC power to disinfect personal and professional spaces. We believe that the awareness of pandemic and infection risk has been forever elevated and that keeping spaces free of airborne pathogens is going to become a personal and organizational priority.

Since transmission of SARS-CoV-2 has been found to take place mostly through aerosols, reducing pathogen counts in the air in a constant and timely manner provides an important layer of protection outside of vaccines, masks and social distancing. We came up with very powerful, contemporarily designed, filter-free and chemical-free disinfectors, nUVo Traveler and nUVo Tower, that have been validated by Intertek, a global independent lab, to reduce 94.1-99.9% of all pathogens within half an hour in realistic spaces. nUVo air disinfectors are designed to continuously destroy mold, bacteria and viruses, including coronavirus and its variants, all without the frequent and costly replacements of HEPA filters found in air purifiers, most of which also could not independently validate their disinfection effectiveness.

While we leverage UV lighting technologies to improve human safety and wellbeing, we do realize that UVC disinfectors do require power consumption. In line with our sustainability focus we are also in the process of joining the “1% for Planet Pledge”. As we launched nUVo in December 2021, we plan to donate 1% of nUVo product sales to a range of sustainability nonprofits to help offset nUVo’s carbon impact.

What was a successful project or implementation you worked on at your company that you can share? Do you have any tips that would help colleagues at other companies who are contemplating similar projects? Please don’t hesitate to point out people in your organization who helped make it a success and who also deserve recognition.

JT: Every worthwhile and impactful project requires lots of talent, dedication and resources that can overcome inevitable obstacles along the way. Although Energy Focus has always been a trailblazing company in the lighting industry when it comes to innovations, we’re especially proud of the nUVo air disinfection product line.

Our product development teams, led by Randy Gianas, Simon Cheng, Jim Porach and Chris Johnston, as well as our industrial designer Juxx Xiao, tirelessly and selflessly designed the products from scratch and worked with multiple suppliers (literally day and night!) for more than 18 months, having to overcome the unprecedented global supply chain challenges, to come up with this unique product line, which we just launched in December 2021. We are aiming to make nUVo™ UVC Air Disinfectors must-have accessories in the post-pandemic life!

If you think purely from a business standpoint, developing such UVC disinfection products for personal uses didn’t fit Energy Focus’ traditional B2B model. We have stepped out of our comfort zone, persevered through development, and expanded our initiatives and product offerings — with even more nUVo™ products to come — because we firmly believe that we can help make peoples’ lives safer and bring people back together in the “new normal”. Unlike many more established lighting or air purifier companies, we don’t carry any baggage about what we can or can’t do, and we are willing to push our boundaries. We’ve leveraged our lighting expertise (without which these achievements would probably be unrealistic) to move fast in building the new institutional capabilities required to bring this the nUVo line to fruition. Many of our staff outside of the products team, such as marketing, finance, operations and legal, actively and proactively collaborated throughout the development process helping us move as quickly as possible to meet performance and quality goals as well as safety standards . It is true as the proverb goes that “when there is will, there is a way.”

The key lessons we learned from this whole process are two-fold:

First, when crises like the pandemic hit, we went back to our mission and vision, and decided that developing powerful UVC disinfection products for massive adoption is the most timely and meaningful way for us to contribute to the world. I think always going back to the “why” of an organization can bring out amazing answers, especially when confronting crises.

Second, throughout the development of nUVo™ disinfectors, which are in a new category on its own, we experienced literally all kinds unforeseen delays, from going through initial design, engineering and prototyping to dealing with new safety standards, component shortages and logistics bottlenecks. Our whole organization and our investors had to endure such delays with considerable financial and opportunity costs. It’s important therefore to stay positive and communicate transparently and proactively during the process to the stakeholder community to support the implementation of such a bold plan.

What trends do you expect to see in the market in the next few years? What challenges will the industry face and what technologies or organizational changes will overcome them?

JT: Since artificial lighting was invented in late 1800s, it has been focused on providing illumination. LED, or solid-state lighting, came along in the early 2000s and dramatically improved lighting energy efficiency.

We believe human-centric lighting (HCL) that incorporates other technologies such as electronics, software, sensor, and even AI into lighting to improve human safety, health and productivity, has enormous potential to bring the lighting industry to the next era. Imagine lighting that is energy efficient, durable and sustainable, aligns your circadian rhythm to improve your sleep and work productivity, provides infrared therapy for cognitive and eyesight improvement, or disinfects the air of all kinds of pathogens and keeps you healthier. These are significant human benefits that will greatly outweigh the utility of simple illumination, or just more efficient LEDs. As the benefits of HCL increase in awareness and it gains adoption, market opportunities, sizes and impacts of lighting will vastly expand. HCL seriously could make lighting “sexy” again, as it was in the late 1800s!

And because HCL takes several different domains of exponential technologies to facilitate, it is transforming lighting to lighting tech. It means that on the one hand, there will be a lot of novel lighting products coming out, and on the other, new product developmental cycles will shorten over time. Companies that choose to keep the traditional lighting mindset could face a challenging transition to this new era, much like how word processing migrated from typewriters to PCs. Energy Focus, with our high-quality, premium positioning, had its fair share of challenges over the past few years as LED lighting experienced nonstop commoditization. And because we are smaller than the GE and Philips of the world, we have had to quickly adapt and evolve to not only survive but also succeed in this historic industry transition. We have been able to develop new technologies and products surrounding HCL by moving fast and by not being afraid of trying new things, taking risks and making mistakes. In a rapidly evolving and emerging industry such as HCL, waiting until everything is certain to make decisions is a sure formula for failure. Looking forward, we want to continue to stay nimble and humble on the one hand and bold and innovative.

Tell us about a favorite hobby, passion or book you’ve read recently that has had an impact on you and your work.

JT: Outside of a generally hectic work schedule running a publicly traded tech company, I have two young daughters that I try to spend as much of my free time with as possible. I also try to read at least few books a month.

One recent book I read is “Liftoff” by Eric Berger, which tells the story about SpaceX in its early days. The unbelievably bold dream Elon Musk had to turn humanity into an inter-planetary species through reusable rockets — which no company or country had ever succeeded in making, and the perseverance and will he and his team demonstrated while developing their first Falcon rocket from scratch — which failed the first three launches (with SpaceX on the brink of extinction itself before the fourth launch succeeded), is utterly inspiring. I think our potential is only limited by our imagination and determination to improve the well-being and future of humanity, and I’m even more excited about what we could accomplish, through constant and tireless innovations, by making lighting healthier and buildings more sustainable for every home and office in the world.

Last (but not least!), I love basketball, so during NBA seasons I multitask as much as I can by reading or working on my emails while watching Golden State Warriors games.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JT: It’s really an honor to join such an elite list of sustainability warriors, and this honor undoubtedly belongs to all our stakeholders–employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders– because it takes a whole community to accomplish anything globally important. We’re just in the beginning of an historic paradigm shift in the lighting industry to make people safer and healthier and our environment cleaner and more sustainable, so I can’t wait to see how we can continue to expand our community and augment our impact!

Twitter: @energyfocusinc

Editor’s note: nominations are now open for this year’s E+E Honorees. Nominate a colleague — or yourself — for the 2022 E+E Honorees today.

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