For Sean Bourquin and Justin Taverna, the innovation light bulb switch flipped on in 2009 and since then, has illuminated their company’s way to doing business in 30 countries around the world.
The founders of Victoria, B.C.-based First Light Technologies created the company out of a commitment to innovation and carving a unique niche in the solar lighting industry. Today, First Light designs and manufactures high-performance, solar-powered LED bollards and luminaires for pedestrian-scale and parking lot applications.
“We were both product managers for another solar-powered product company and we wanted to do more. We wanted to build our own company and see if we could create our own thing,” says Bourquin, First Light CEO. “We initially began in consulting, but we built a war chest for the development of our own outdoor lighting products. The potential for outdoor solar lighting is in a word, huge, around the globe.”
A report by industry publication LEDinside reveals that the global LED lighting market is expected to reach $30.5 billion US and achieve a market penetration rate of 36 per cent in 2016.
LEDinside Assistant Research Manager, Joanne Wu, says that sharp price declines are responsible for the growing market trend. As a result, lighting companies will begin to shift their focus to professional lighting markets, including high-growth in industrial, commercial and architectural lighting.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, LED lighting is projected to achieve a market share in the U.S. of 84 per cent by 2030, reducing lighting energy consumption in that year alone by 40 per cent. That translates into savings of more than $26 billion US at today’s energy prices and equivalent to the total energy consumed by nearly 24 million U.S. homes.
A commitment to innovation was a smart choice for First Light, a 12-employee company. Using a local sourcing strategy, all products are manufactured at its B.C. facility. The firm’s proprietary Solar Lighting Controller (SLC) is “self-learning” and allows the lights to adapt to their surroundings, providing a level of lighting performance and reliability unavailable in other solar lighting products, according to Bourquin.
International sales have been part of overall revenue since the company installed solar solutions at its first global project, a park located on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Today, exports account for more than 95 per cent of all sales, with more than 90 per cent destined to its major market.
“Solar lighting works best in places with a lot of sun, so we initially targeted the U.S. because we understood that market,” Bourquin says. “When we launched our first product, the U.S. Army placed a large order for a jogging trail and we realized that the business could be successful.”
Global success can’t be achieved without hard work, determination and vision, says Bourquin.
“One of our biggest challenges is that people don’t know that we, or our technology, exists and how it can help them,” says Bourquin. “So you have to be tenacious and find a way to make it happen. In our experience, we realized that while customers may not know our products, we understand the lighting problems they face and we solve those problems for them. It’s all about making the buying experience as easy as possible.”
That strategy appears to be working. Most of North America’s major hotel chains, Fortune-500 companies, hundreds of municipalities, as well as government agencies utilize First Light’s solutions.
In the case of a major vacation resort in the Bahamas, choosing solar in the aftermath of a hurricane made economic sense.
“To redo the wiring was going to be extremely expensive and a huge pain, so they decided to go solar,” explains Bourquin. “They saw the benefits of low installation and operating costs, (and) no need to replace wiring infrastructure. And it offers immunity from power outages.”
Marketing those benefits successfully in foreign markets hinges on education and a boots-on-the-ground approach.
“Relationships and trust are what it’s about in terms of our long-term success,” Bourquin says. “We couldn’t do everything from our office; you need to be face to face. Tradeshows have helped us accomplish this.”
However, it takes more than a handshake to tap into a particular market.
“It’s not easy to learn all the export requirements of various markets, so you need to build relationships with the right people and organizations that understand the terrain,” Bourquin adds.
Looking towards the future, First Light aims to build a stronger presence in the U.S., Caribbean, Australia and Middle East.
“There will be other markets, but we’ve chosen to focus on what we know. There is tons of growth potential in existing markets for us.”
That potential has led to a lofty goal of doubling sales in the next three years.
“We have a great, experienced team, an excellent product, and a lot of determination,” Bourquin says. “We believe in what we’re doing and we’ll work hard to make it happen.”