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Crown ElectroKinetics Brings Smart Tech to Window Tints

Commercial building developers have plenty of options when it comes to windows that reduce heat and light transmission to reduce their carbon footprint and cut down on soaring energy costs. Choices include double-paned windows, light-sensitive glass that can darken automatically and even windows with solar photovoltaic cells integrated into them.

But there are fewer options for commercial building owners and operators who want an affordable yet effective way to retrofit their existing windows to reduce their carbon

Window shades require constant operations from tenants, and pre-tinted film slapped onto the glass is often of limited effectiveness. And other options such as installing double-paned windows or light-sensitive glass are often expensive and require extensive disruptions to the tenants.

Enter Brentwood-based Crown ElectroKinetics Corp., which has developed a window light-regulating technology that it hopes will hit the sweet spot among all these options. The six-year-old company has adapted technology once used for 3D printing to develop a “dynamic tint” film with pigments that can adjust to lighting conditions.

But instead of going directly on the window, the film is placed within a custom-fit modular frame that contains sensors and wiring that activate the tinting pigments. That frame is then inserted on the inside of building windows.

“It’s an add-on process that’s very quick and easy to install, with no downtime for the building tenants,” said Doug Croxall, Crown’s chief executive.
Just last month, Crown ElectroKinetics cut its first major deal to install its “smart glass” modular inserts in commercial office buildings owned by Brentwood-based Hudson Pacific Properties, a real estate investment trust.

Hudson, which was an early investor in Crown, plans to start by installing Crown’s inserts in three of its office buildings, including its Brentwood headquarters, according to Natalie Teear, Hudson Pacific’s senior vice president of innovation, sustainability and social impact.

“One of the reasons we were drawn to Crown’s technology is that it allows us to retrofit existing buildings, which could have a significant impact on our overall energy use, carbon footprint and tenant comfort,” Teear said.

If the installation in the three initial office buildings proves successful, there are many more windows that could receive Crown’s treatment within Hudson Pacific’s portfolio of more than 14 million square feet of office space.

Cost-effective technology

Crown’s pigment technology got its start nearly a decade ago at Hewlett Packard Co.’s 3D printing facility in Corvallis, Ore. According to Croxall, the pigments were composed of nanoparticles that add shades of color to 3D-printed products. The technology would likely have stayed inside Hewlett Packard were it not for the company’s decision to split itself into two separate companies in late 2015: One company focused on personal computers and printers, and the other focused on large-scale servers, computers and related networks.

Senior Process and Tooling Design Engineer Alexander Laws
Senior Process and Tooling Design Engineer Alexander Laws working in the Crown engineering lab in Corvallis, Oregon.

“When the split occurred, there were several orphaned technologies that did not find a home in either company, and this pigment technology was one of those,” Croxall said.
Croxall, who had a background helping companies obtain patents for their intellectual property and who had been working with Hewlett Packard’s intellectual property team for more than a decade, saw an opportunity to step in.

“This was one of probably a dozen projects at HP that I looked at to see if it could be patented,” Croxall said. “I thought there was a market to use these pigments for window tinting. This technology is applied on a film that can be put onto the glass, unlike most window tinting that involves tinting the glass itself. This film product was much more affordable to make.”

Croxall formed Crown ElectroKinetics in 2016 and spent the next two years on extensive market research to determine the best, most profitable use of this pigment film technology.

One of those early meetings was with Hudson Pacific, which had already been exploring several new technologies to cut down on the carbon footprint of traditional glass windows. Hudson Pacific decided to become an early investor.

Croxall said a key breakthrough came with the realization that the pigment film could be applied as part of an add-on modular frame.
“We originally sought to put film directly on windows but realized that there was greater energy savings with an insert containing a second window to which the film is attached,” Croxall said. “The insert creates a dual window frame that further insulates the interior. That alone achieves energy savings.”

An added benefit is that installing the inserts is much simpler, quicker and cheaper than taking out existing windows and replacing the glass; Croxall estimated that an insert costs only about a quarter of the cost of removing and replacing window glass. And it’s not that much more expensive than pasting on a film or installing a shade. An insert for a 5-foot-by-5-foot window costs about $700, Croxall said, which is about 50% more than the cost of film or a shade.

Also, Croxall said the insert frame that surrounds the film contains motion sensors and other communications technology that can tie into building heating/ventilation and air conditioning systems, alerting those systems to turn off when the sensors detect no people nearby. This feature, in turn, helps building owners save even more energy.

Stiff competition

Despite these advantages, Crown ElectroKinetics faces many competitors using several different technologies in pursuit of the goal of reducing the carbon footprint of traditional office windows.

As a sign of this challenge, Hudson Pacific’s Teear said her company is pursuing several different technologies simultaneously as it looks for the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of commercial office building windows. Among the other technologies: double-paned windows, window tint films and also glass windows with embedded solar photovoltaic cells.

According to James McIlree, an analyst with Boca Raton, Fla.-based Dawson James Securities Inc., the company with the closest comparable technology to Crown is Milpitas-based View Inc. McIlree said in a recent report on Crown ElectroKinetics that he believes View, with a market capitalization roughly 20 times the size of Crown, is selling its dynamic tinting glass at a significant discount. That would make it harder for Crown to compete.

Crown’s Croxall said he is confident his company’s technology will hold up on its merits when compared to these other technologies, both for its cost-effectiveness and for its simplicity. He said he’s more concerned about having the manufacturing capacity to meet the orders he’s expecting to come in.

“We’re right now at the point of starting production and we may have to scale up quickly,” especially if the scope of the Hudson agreement grows, he said.
Obtaining sufficient capital for that production ramp-up was one reason the company decided to go public last year, he said. Another was to follow through on a promise of an exit strategy for early investors; between its founding in 2016 and the early 2021 decision to go public, Crown had raised more than $6 million — mostly from angel investors.

Looking ahead, McIlree said Crown is poised to benefit from an increasing number of green building mandates passed by local and state governments. So far, those mandates are mostly aimed at new construction, including one proposed earlier this month for the city of Los Angeles by councilmember Nithya Raman that would require all new buildings to be carbon neutral starting in 2035.

Eventually, though, for the city to meet tough carbon emission reduction standards by 2050, existing buildings will also have to come under the mandate, according to statements from Raman and several other councilmembers.
“Crown’s electrokinetic solution can help satisfy that demand,” McIlree said in his report.

Paola Mendez
Paola Mendez
Paola Mendez graduated from Los Angeles Valley College, then transferred to University of California, and now serves as a Receptionist and Office Assistant to the Los Angeles Business Journal. Paola wears many hats in different departments and is trilingual in English, Spanish and French.

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