In a lighting market dominated by conglomerates, it’s rare to find a startup that—for now, at least—wants to stay one. Such is the case for Stack Lighting, a Silicon Valley–based maker of Web-enabled LED lamps that was founded by former Tesla Motors executives and is staffed with engineers culled from agencies and companies such as NASA, HP Labs, Google, and Oracle. Charting a path similar to that of smart-thermostat developer Nest Labs, which was acquired by Google earlier this year for $3.2 billion, Stack wants to make lighting responsive, eventually opening its APIs for further development and integration in residential and commercial spaces. Architectural Lighting spoke with the firm’s founder and CEO Neil Joseph, a former delivery program manager at Tesla, to learn about the company’s lighting ambitions and Alba, its inaugural line of lamps that kicks off with a BR30, out early next year, to be followed by additional lamp types including an A19, a troffer, and an MR16.
What is Stack Lighting?
It was about a year ago on a beautiful, sunny day at the Tesla headquarters, which [houses workstations in] a big open seating area. I was sitting right by the windows and looked up and thought: Why are all these lights on at full power when there’s so much natural sunlight coming in? Our phones and laptops automatically adjust for brightness, so there must be lights that can do that. I started looking for products that could actually respond to the environment, and all I could find were expensive and complicated commercial systems. We soon began developing the technology to embed the sensors directly in the bulbs, and I left Tesla in October  to get it off the ground.
Why are you launching the Alba family of lamps with a BR30?
We chose the BR30 first because a lot of kitchens, family rooms, and dining rooms as well as a lot of retail and hospitality commercial verticals use recessed [downlights].
How is the light controlled and managed?
Installation involves screwing the bulb in and then, with an app, imputing whether you’re in a home or a commercial environment. We start with preset conditions because our principle is that the system should work [as-is] 98 percent of the time for 98 percent of people. For the rest, people who really do want to customize the system, we have an app that they can go into and say, ‘I want to make zones that are much more specific and have these behaviors.’ We have machine learning at the bulb level, the Wi-Fi hub, and the back-end to help determine occupants’ behavior patterns and adjust the lights output accordingly. We view this as the backbone of a responsive sensor network to connect with other devices using APIs like [those of] HomeKit, Nest, and IFTT to help other products understand where people are in the building. A lot of our intellectual property is having the light sensors and the motion sensors [on the same circuit board] as the LEDs.
So, the sensors adjust the color temperature of the light?
That’s an aspect of the technology. Let’s say the light sensor is adjusting the total amount of light that it outputs and then the motion sensor [turns the light on and off]. We use the time of day and patterns [detected by the sensors to determine the] color temperature. The default would be 5000K in the morning and then as the day goes on it adjusts itself so that by the evening it is closer to 2700K. There’s also a feature in the app that lets users set [a timer based on] when they go to bed and adjusts the lights’ color temperature accordingly.
How would this work in a commercial space?
It could be used to change the color temperature to set the right ambiance in a store. Also, in each bulb is an embedded Bluetooth [location-based proximity sensor system]. Instead of needing external sensors placed around a retail store, each bulb can collect marketing and analytics. Over the next year, we’re going to begin rolling out analytics software to commercial customers that, with the embedded sensors and beacon, will tell them what’s going on in a space.
What is your goal for Stack as it enters the lighting space?
We’re looking to build a solid business and are aware that smaller tech companies often get acquired. We’re focusing on delivering products that enhance people’s lives and are doing that by making the lighting systems much simpler using our sensor technologies and helping integrate systems such as HVAC, security, and other connected devices. The Internet of Things has been exploding and a lot of it is predicated upon where people are in a building. Lights are the most common devices and would have the best sense of where people are.
Where does Alba, the name of your line of lamps, come from?
Alba is Italian for sunrise or dawn. We see responsive lighting as the dawn of the next stage of lighting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.