Seeing a Bright Future in Flexible Light Screens
Alumnus Turned Laboratory Discovery into a Promising Spinoff Company
Sep. 30, 2010
If you don’t know what OLED means, Dr. Rick McCullough (BS ’82) promises that you will soon. As vice president for research at Carnegie Mellon University, McCullough bases this prediction on a lifelong career as both scientist and successful entrepreneur.
The Mesquite native took his passion for chemistry to UT Dallas, where he earned his BS in 1982. Then it was on to Johns Hopkins University for an MS and PhD, and Columbia University for his post-doctoral years. A true academic, McCullough eventually landed at Carnegie Mellon, where he became head of the chemistry department, dean of the Mellon College of Science, and currently serves as the Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry.
An internationally recognized expert in conductive polymer technology, McCullough turned a laboratory discovery into a spinoff company in 2002. Today, Plextronics Inc. employs more than 70 scientists and engineers in a bustling Pittsburgh research park full of similar high-tech start-ups.
As a career academic, McCullough found learning how to operate as both a company’s co-founder and its chief scientist initially challenging, but said he now finds the dual roles fulfilling. “It’s been remarkable to watch Plextronics grow from a laboratory concept into a serious business enterprise,” McCullough said. “I feel personally rewarded by helping create new high-tech jobs in a city that’s traditionally been known for its steel and heavy manufacturing.” The local business community in Pittsburgh agrees. Plextronics was recently named by the Pittsburgh Business Times as one of the region’s 100 fastest-growing companies for the third year in a row. The company ranked 12th in manufacturing growth and 4th in revenue growth, which increased 171 percent between 2007 and 2009.
McCullough says that Plextronics’ success can be attributed to its novel applications of OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes), and OPVs (organic photovoltaics). From flat-screen monitors in televisions, computers and cell phones to white light applications “OLED technology is transforming traditional ways of thinking about things like lighting, entertainment and even building design,” McCullough explained. The inner workings of current large flat-screen monitors are composed of rigid hardware, and advancements in electronics technology have made them thinner and lighter, “but what if you could make the screen flexible with the same, or better, picture quality while also using less power?” asked McCullough. “That’s what OLED technology is enabling.”
The need for these types of advances exists and is growing. “The market for printed electronics is about $2 billion in 2010,” McCullough said. “By 2020, it is expected to exceed $60 billion.”
For a U.S. Department of Defense project, Plextronics is exploring how combat soldiers could use the flexible displays, which could be rolled up and carried in their gear, along with being linked to real-time satellite or aerial reconnaissance images of other parts of the battlefield. “By making these displays lightweight and low-power, troops can access critical visual information without limiting their mobility,” McCullough said.
Other applications of Plextronics’ technology in development may hold great promise for generating energy usage. Among them, McCullough says, are traditional roll-up window blinds that not only block out sunlight but also function as solar panels. He also envisions large OLED screens being used as light sources in large public areas, such as malls, schools and stadiums. “Someday soon, you will be able to cover a large wall in your home with a flexible screen that could be used for multiple purposes. You could watch television, search the Internet, use it as a basic light source, or project a calming video image of a beach, forest or any other setting,” McCullough said.
McCullough is quick to credit UT Dallas for fostering his interest in chemistry and developing the research skills that led him to such a successful career. “The focus on research, even at the undergraduate level, was invaluable preparation for what I faced later at Columbia and Johns Hopkins. I especially appreciate the guidance and mentorship of Dr. John Ferraris,” who is now head of chemistry. In recognition of his academic and entrepreneurial accomplishments, UT Dallas presented McCullough with the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005.
Under the yellow lights of a clean room, Dr. Rick McCullough stands among the cutting-edge fabrication chambers necessary for making Plextronics’ advanced products.
Srinivas Gowrisanker (right) earned his PhD in physics from UT Dallas in 2009. He now works for Plextronics as a scientist who focuses on the company’s solar cell technology. UT Dallas President David E. Daniel visited Gowrisanker and McCullough in Pittsburgh this summer.