FRONTLINE: Technology Profile

Seeing the Light
Two Main Line technology executives bring you the future now.

Seeing the Light
Two Main Line technology executives bring you the future now.

Once upon a time, the future was going to be brought to us courtesy of earnest men with slicked-back hair, white lab coats and probably at least one pipe. But that Hollywood image of the forward-thinking scientific brain trust went out the door with the arrival of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and their cabal of nerd-boy contemporaries.

Thanks to them, science—and the future itself—was cut loose from sterile laboratories and set free to emerge in suburban home workshops at the hands of brainy free-thinkers. The big-money guys took notice, and garage inventors became both the tycoons and the arbiters of future tech.

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But that doesn’t mean groundbreaking research can’t still come from the folks in white lab coats. Sometimes it just takes an objective party to take a peek into the labs to see the potential.

In the case of Sherwin Seligsohn, chairman of the board and CEO of Universal Display Corp. in Ewing, N.J., he had the foresight to see potential in the labs and seek out guys like Narberth’s Steve Abramson and Haverford’s Sidney Rosenblatt to bring his big ideas to fruition.

Universal Design Corp. president/COO Abramson and vice president/CFO Rosenblatt have their hands in the present and future of electronics displays, design, portability and power savings. They’re also in the forefront of
revolutions in lighting, advertising and personal communication.

Their company is one of the leading manufacturers of organic light-emitting display technology, which uses individual organic molecules to illuminate on demand, much as individual pixels in a computer image do. On its face, it doesn’t sound like much, but a tour of the product display gallery at the company’s headquarters quickly puts things into perspective. OLED technology and its various permutations will offer stunning advances in picture quality—along with reductions in price and weight—for mobile phones, portable video players, flat-screen TVs and computer monitors.

Displaying one of the company’s FOLED (“F” for flexible) devices, Rosenblatt twists and turns the super-thin “substrate” in which the OLED molecules are embedded with no loss of picture quality and superior viewing from all angles. “It’s a better image, a clearer image and is more energy efficient,” Abramson says.

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Most modern liquid crystal display screens (those now on your mobile phone, flat-screen TV or computer display) are backlit and reflect through embedded crystals. Standard television, meanwhile, is an image projected directly onto the screen from a “gun” in the back of the set. “OLED is the actual molecules themselves emitting the light, so you get a direct image and a form factor that’s thinner and lighter than an LCD,” says Abramson.

Consider that the layer of those molecules is 1/1,000th the thickness of a human hair, and the potential seems limitless. Eventually, applications might include full-ceiling, solid-state lighting; flexible displays for everything from an infantryman’s visor to a car’s windshield; computer and TV displays applied to surfaces like wallpaper rather than affixed with hardware; and windows that can change tint, serve as computer displays and collect solar energy.

At the most ambitious end, UDC is developing a device that could, in fact, be the savior of print media. It’s compact “portable communications device” will combine the best of our various portable devices with instantly updatable newspaper and magazine pages on a single device that offers a flexible, retractable screen.

All the Flash Gordon fun will also have a positive environmental impact, with devices that incorporate OLED using dramatically less energy and the potential for OLED-based lighting to cut the money spent to light and cool buildings. Consider that a standard incandescent light bulb produces between 15 and 20 lumens (the scale used to measure light output) per watt of energy used. OLED-based lighting, by contrast, produces 150 lumens per watt.

“When you look at lighting, Thomas Edison’s light bulb is a heat generator that just happens to give off light,” Rosenblatt says, noting that nearly 30 percent of a building’s energy use can go toward cooling air heated by standard bulbs. “The energy efficiency of many of these technologies will dramatically change the amount of energy we use.”

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STEVE ABRAMSON and Sidney Rosenblatt didn’t plan to get into the business of the future when they became good friends while attending Temple University Law School in the mid-1970s. Abramson
was building on his undergraduate
degree in international relations. Upon returning from the Vietnam War, Rosenblatt spent three years working for a Center City accounting firm after earning his degree from Community College of Philadelphia as part of the school’s open enrollment plan for veterans.

They hit it off immediately—so much so that their future collaboration was predicted by classmates. “A number of people have told us, ‘You guys always said you’d work together at some point,” Rosenblatt notes.

But that point didn’t come immediately. Both went their separate ways professionally after law school but continued to stay in touch. It was as an accountant working in private practice during the early 1980s that Rosenblatt met and got to know Universal Display Corp.
founder Seligsohn. At the time, Seligsohn was working for a company called International Mobile Machines (now known as InterDigital Communications Corp.) and was raising money for what was then a far-reaching goal—the manufacture of portable phones.

“In 1982, no one had any idea what the cell phone market was going to do,” says Rosenblatt. “The projections were that, in 1985, [cell phones would have] 3 to 5 percent penetration in the U.S. market. Today they sell a billion phones annually.”

When Seligsohn took the company public, he invited Rosenblatt to come on board as chief financial officer. When the company needed to add to its legal team, Rosenblatt suggested that Abramson move back to the Philadelphia area from Columbus, Ohio, to take the job as general counsel. He eventually became head of the technology licensing division.

It was at International Mobile Machines that both men got their first taste of working in pursuit of the future. The relationship has continued to this day. “We’ve been working together pretty much since then on developing new types of technology that focus on very large, broad markets—where we always didn’t want to be the manufacturer but the person who develops it and gets a license fee from it,” Rosenblatt says.

All three men left the company in the early 1990s for other ventures. But it wasn’t long before they heard from Seligsohn again. He’d read an article about research in solar collection being performed by Princeton University. When he visited the researchers and asked to see the new developments. “They said, ‘Well, if you like that idea, you’re going to love this idea,’” he recalls.

They showed Seligsohn the prototypes for the early organic light emitting devices that now serve as the foundation for nearly everything Universal Display Corp. does. He agreed to fund their research and eventually sought both Abramson and Rosenblatt with the goal of creating a company around OLEDs and convincing them to run it.

UDC’s next step speaks volumes about the boundless technological optimism and deep investor pockets of the early 1990s.

“In 1996, we were able to take a very early-state company public and raise $6.5 million with essentially three people and a sponsored research agreement with the [Princeton University] to create a technology licensing company that didn’t have any patents issued at the time,” Rosenblatt says with a straight face.

“Nor was there an industry into which we could license,” notes Abramson with a hearty laugh.

The company’s first headquarters was established in Bala Cynwyd with the intention of creating a “virtual workplace” that was within biking distance of both of their homes and include showers so they could clean up at the office after their commutes. That site, however, was too far from the labs at Princeton. With more hiring—and faced with the reality that a majority of that work force was located in Princeton—Rosenblatt and Abramson were compelled to set up shop in an office over a liquor store in the
university town.

Eventually, space and personnel requirements became such that a new facility was required. Being able to build from the ground up was good for a number of reasons. Physically, the building could be designed to their exact specifications. Philosophically, both men knew the workplace they created would be one where great ideas, hard work and a healthy dose of fun were part of the equation. They are living examples of that way of working. Both dress casually and possess a Ben & Jerry’s-meets-Microsoft vibe.

Now, 16 years later, UDC has 800 patents to its name and is part of a thriving industry in electronic devices, displays and future tech that has only begun to be tapped. One of the first mass market devices to make use of UDC’s AMOLED (“AM” for active matrix) technology is the Clix Gen 2 from iRiver, a Flash media player that incorporates the goodies of a Video iPod while using the company’s own technology. It’s at the very cusp of a trend that Abramson, Rosenblatt and the rest of UDC’s employees will soon experience more frequently.

“[OLED] is going to end up being a commodity. It’s going to be everywhere,” Rosenblatt says. “You’re going to walk into Best Buy or Circuit City to buy a TV, and the guy’s going to say, ‘What you really want is one of these OLED screens.’ There aren’t many development ideas that may be great ideas from the beginning and actually become commodities.”


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