On December 21, Tommy Voeten will turn 30 — “a milestone,” as he puts it. At only 29, Voeten and his engineers at Netherlands-based Xilver BV have risen to the status of “product designers to watch” in just four years since starting the company in 2000. Specializing in LED products for entertainment, display, and architectural lighting, Xilver introduced its first product, the Droplet, in 2002. Just two years later, the company is moving out of its infancy with an ever-wary eye on the market.

LD talked with Voeten to hear about heading up the young and talented engineers who make the R&D process sound like a walk in the park.

MSD: How did you get started in the lighting business?

TV: When I was 16, I became aware of the music of Pink Floyd and saw the Delicate Sound of Thunder concert on video. I was amazed with the work of Marc Brickman. I made a model of the show to scale for a school project, and people were quite amazed. From that time, I knew it was my dream to create and build moving lights.

I really started about 10 years ago, and my passion was designing moving lights with various innovative technologies. I was very young, and it was very difficult to get a job in the United States, so I was working here in Holland. It was at that time I decided to just start putting all my ideas on paper and making a few prototypes.

MSD: How did Xilver get started, and how is the ownership structured?

TV: We actually started with a plan to make moving lights-again. I was always interested in movement and lighting, but seeing Pink Floyd really brought these two ideas together for me. Then, I started looking at the market and going to trade shows, and I learned how small this market is. I was designing moving lights all along, but being so young, it was very difficult to finance a company or to find anyone to invest.

I met two guys, Rick Buskens and Jos Slenter, who were still studying at university, and they were great at developing electronics and software, and that's not what I'm particularly good at. So, I started making some prototypes with them, and one day, we decided to start Xilver together — just the three of us. I had already invested a lot of my own time and money in my products and designs, so that's why I have the majority of ownership, but I really need Rick and Jos as my partners, so we can all work together to make beautiful products. They are also owners.

It's always difficult as an entrepreneur to fit in somewhere. I have strong ideas and strong opinions, but I was very lucky to find my associates, whom I am very happy to share my ideas with, and they are happy to incorporate their ideas with mine.

MSD: Isn't there a fourth-party shareholder, as well?

TV: We have one shareholder, so it's the three partners and a fourth investor, LIOF, an industry bank. These companies invest in a small start-up to help develop the first products, and they own a part in return. They only stay with us for a certain amount of time. They also help in development and getting subsidiaries. It took me a full year to get approval for LIOF to invest in us, so they became a partner in 2002.

MSD: How did you start to concentrate on color changing LEDs?

TV: The whole market seemed to be changing a couple of years ago, and everyone was developing larger moving lights. We also had a large moving light development program, but I decided to make a 180-degree turn and start making smaller lights. We've frozen the project to make larger lights. It's still in the fridge, as I like to say.

LED technology was the solution, not our original idea. We just always wanted to make innovative products, regardless of the technology. We down-scaled our thinking because I saw the market was too limited for us to survive as a company, and I didn't think that's what the market was looking for. So, I thought we would make the smallest moving light instead, as no one at the time was really making cross-market products for both entertainment and architecture, indoor and outdoor.

Our first goal was to make a $500 moving body product with a halogen MR-16 lamp. The problem was making the product small. We had problems with heat, so we had to use a different light source or make the product bigger. We came in contact with a company in Holland, which is now Lumileds, and we actually got the first samples of high-power LEDs. This solved our problems with heat and allowed us to add color changing. We improved the optics and added an internal color-mixing system for the entertainment industry. Then, we presented the Droplet, which was the smallest moving LED light on the market.

MSD: How did the entertainment market respond?

TV: People really liked the design, but they thought it was expensive and didn't know what to do with such a small LED light. Most only saw them as accents. We also discovered quickly that advertising and promoting the product to the industries would be too hard to track, so we knew we had to present the product and teach about the technology and how to use it.

The television market was most immediately interested in the Droplet because of the product's size and the advantages of the brightness, color saturation, etc. of LEDs on camera. It took us a lot of time to convince people, through demos and classes, to use the product. Slowly, people started believing, and now, they're used all over Europe for different applications.

MSD: How does your team plan to launch a new product?

TV: We try to look through the eyes of the customer, and we try to sell a solution. It's a difficult process, because the market is very unstable and changing rapidly. People have asked us many times to create a linear lighting fixture, for example. If I don't see anything I can add to make such a product better, then it doesn't make sense for us to develop it, because other companies are already doing it. I would rather just recommend someone else. For us, it's important to develop a product with its own identity. We will be introducing a linear product to the market in the coming months but not in the way that the industry is used to seeing it.

Others have asked us to make a larger moving light, but it wouldn't make sense to enlarge the Droplet, for example, unless we can add some value to the product, not just add features here and there.

MSD: Who are your key team members and how does your internal R&D process work?

TV: I decide what the product looks like and how the technology is incorporated into the product. Stijn, the sales and marketing manager, ensures we're making a product worth selling. Rick, R&D manager and partner, is the analog electronics expert, specializing in switch-mode power supplies. Jos, my other partner, deals with software issues.

We get a synergy effect, and we document everything, so all our ideas come together on paper to become a specification. There must be innovation in there. Otherwise, it's not even interesting to start developing a product. We also work on custom fixtures in this way. We're able to specify, design, and build a fixture very quickly because we are small and flexible.

For a project in Korea, LD Rogier van der Heide, IALD, associate director of Arup, wanted to use low maintenance LEDs for outdoors, so in a few days, I designed a product and presented it to him. We worked with E:Cue in Germany to help us with the software to control so many DMX channels. The entire process — 4,500 fixtures — took only eight weeks, from design to the first delivery. This is now becoming one of our standard products. So, being a small company doesn't mean you can only do small things.

MSD: What about the issues of brightness and consistency of LEDs for entertainment applications?

TV: Well, then the question is, “When do you want to use a product — today or 10 years from now?” We work with designers who want to distinguish themselves, so they like to use something different.

We're getting to the point where LEDs are almost as attractive as a PAR64 with scroller, dimming, and cabling, in terms of color. White LEDs are still not bright enough, but better whites are definitely coming in the near future.

MSD: Where are LEDs taking the industry, in your opinion?

TV: I still don't think LEDs will ever replace all other light sources in all applications. For instance, candles, halogen lamps, discharge lamps, all still exist. LEDs just give designers new opportunities to work with lights. The technology is not moving rapidly enough anyway, which is good for the market, because people have time to get a return on their investment.

MSD: What's been your biggest challenge?

TV: If we stay in Europe, then the reaction and acceptance of the market may be a drawback. Many LED companies seem to have disappeared already. We don't want to be the company that makes the fast buck. We want to make solid quality products and stay in business as long as we can.

Xilver Team

(Average Age: 26)

Tommy Voeten
director, founder, and partner

Stijn Bröcker
international sales and marketing manager

Rick Buskens
head R&D department manager and partner

Jos Slenter
head electronics and software manager and partner

Raymond Maas
head production manager