Robert Lieberman's efforts at marketing his company's LED "Incapacitator" (LEDI) and finding partners and materials for his non-lethal self-defense device must be the envy of every optical entrepreneur who slaved over market research and other aspects of a business plan.
"It has marketed itself to a degree because of the publicity we've gotten," says Lieberman, an SPIE Fellow and the founder, president, and CTO of Intelligent Optical Systems (IOS) in California.
IOS' novel self-defense device for police and security personnel, which looks like a large flashlight but delivers highly disorienting, intense light with varying colors and frequency patterns, was developed with funding and other assistance from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The program encourages small American businesses to innovate new technologies for commercial use.
Robert Lieberman with his LEDI.
In the case of the LEDI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was interested from the start in a hand-held device that could be used to temporarily incapacitate someone with light. The LEDI, which produces flash blindness similar to a camera flash and can cause disorientation, vertigo, nausea, headache, and other temporary discomfort, was seen as an alternative to potentially eye-damaging, laser-based devices or to Tasers.
In 2007, part way into the development process, Homeland Security featured the LEDI in a newsletter article on homelandsecurity.org, which generated publicity on blogs, newspapers, and magazines. TIME magazine selected the LEDI as one of the Best Inventions of 2007. Some of the articles described the challenge IOS was having in designing a small but powerful optical device with an array of state-of-the-art LEDs.
"We had to work with LEDs that were, at the time, 'state of the art' and LED packaging technology that sort of pushed beyond the state of the art," Lieberman says. "The real challenge there was getting enough optical power with the existing LED technology without either (a) burning the device up because we're putting so much energy into the LEDs or (b) making it so big as to be completely unwieldy." Then there was the question of whether there were large enough quantities of specialized LEDs available.
"That whole problem became a lot easier," after the article and the ensuing publicity, Lieberman says. "We had LED makers calling us saying, 'How would you like to try our latest device?'"
Further publicity and buzz for the law enforcement tool came after the Small Business Administration and the Department of Homeland Security connected Lieberman's team with potential users in law enforcement. Those users included Sid Heal, then the head of the technology exploration unit in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, a leader in new nonlethal weapons technologies.
At a Homeland Security-sponsored user group meeting, Heal and other participants gave IOS key input on design refinementsand a ready market for the device, which is expected to be available before the end of the year.
"We briefed them on what the technology could do without showing them a picture of the original LEDI," Lieberman says. Lieberman and his team described the effects that ISO's bright flashing light could achieve (temporary visual impairment and dizziness long enough to give the user an advantage over an adversary), the range of sizes it could take, and the distances at which the various sizes would be effective. Then they asked the group for guidance on the final design, based on what would be most useful to them. Only after that did Lieberman show the group a prototype of the LEDI, an oversized flashlight with a 6-inch wide head.
"It should look pretty much like what you got," the user group told him, "except the head's a little too big." IOS is now working on a smaller version of the LEDI.
Because of that meeting and all the publicity, Lieberman says, "We have a long list of people and agencies that are waiting for this product to be released so they can buy them and try them."
Eye on the Market
Aligning his company with potential users, potential manufacturers, and the market in general is nothing new for IOS. IOS has received SBIR grants for several other commercially successful projects, and the products are always coupled with a defined market from the beginning.
"We make sure that we are working on something that we think can actually become a useful product and something that can be sold to somebody," he says.
With a marketing plan well developed and the size of the device shrunk to be more manageable, the next steps for commercialization of LEDI are safety tests on human subjects, an agreement with a manufacturer, and IP protection.
Medical tests are being conducted at Pennsylvania State University, with preliminary indications that the device is eye-safe and the effects wear off after a few minutes. Tests are expected to be complete this summer.
Lieberman said in an interview in April that he was in the process of forming a "formal strategic alliance with one of the major suppliers of nonlethal technology in this country," to mass produce the LEDI. "And probably the product will roll out under their name … maybe with a little sticker saying IOS technology inside."
Lieberman says, however, "All options are open.
"In fact, I think if we just hung out our shingle and started selling these things, we could probably sell a lot of them right out of this building. But in order to roll things out more quickly, we may wind up with a strategic alliance with someone who's already got a sales force in this market space."
Applying for a patent or other IP protection is a bit more tricky, Lieberman notes, as the device uses a specific combination of wavelengths flashed sequentially or together at different frequencies. "Of course, once the device is out and commercially available and people start bringing it to their labs, everybody will figure out what wavelengths and frequencies we're using. So, we're looking into that."
The LED Incapacitator uses bright pulsed light of varying frequencies and wavelengths to confuse the brain and cause temporary flash blindness and dizziness. The device measures the distance to the subject and continuously changes the colors and pulses on a cluster of LEDs powered by a battery pack. The unusual combination of wavelengths and frequencies, like a strobe light on steroids, overwhelms the subject, leaving no time for the brain or eyes to adapt. The subject usually shuts or turns his/her eyes away, giving the user time to move in and subdue the person with minimal force.
Research by Intelligent Optical Systems' chief scientist Vladimir Rubtsov has pinpointed several combinations of colors that are particularly effective at reaching sensitive regions of the eye and creating an aversion response.
LEDs are used because of their size, portability, power, durability, and efficiency. Earlier laser-based devices designed to "dazzle" an adversary were determined unsuitable as a hand-held application, could not fit on a police officer's belt, and raised concerns about eye safety.
Intelligent Optical Systems (www.intopsys.com) of Torrance, CA, is a privately held technology development company founded in 1998. It specializes in optical sensing devices, software, and instrumentation for military, security, medical, environmental, and other commercial applications. IOS currently employs 40 scientists, engineers, and other multi-disciplinary staff, a third of whom have PhDs in various fields.
Intelligent Optical Systems' chief scientist Vladimir Rubtsov, left, and IOS president Robert Lieberman explain what the LEDI does at the SPIE Defense, Security, and Sensing Exhibition in April.
Two-thirds of IOS revenues are from federal grants such as the SBIR grant under which the LED Incapacitator was developed. The technologies IOS develops are usually sold or licensed to third parties. Founder and president Bob Lieberman worked on the LEDI with principal investigator Vladimir Rubtsov.
Crowd control in stand-off situations
Coast Guard operations in confined environments
Border Patrol duty, for personnel and vehicular protection
Correctional facility operations and riot control
Perimeter protection or area denial applications
- Personal hand-held, non-lethal devices for patrol officer "force-option"
- Other nonlethal countermeasures
Kathy Sheehan is managing editor of SPIE Professional.
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