Seagate’s former CEO lights up

Tech veteran Watkins talks about why he took the top job at LED maker Bridgelux.

A year after he was booted from the top spot at hard drive-maker Seagate (STX), Bill Watkins has taken on the CEO job at Sunnyvale, CA-based LED lighting company Bridgelux. Bridgelux makes LED (light emitting diode) chips and arrays for use in general lighting applications for everything from streetlights to warehouses.

“I always knew I would go back to work – I wasn’t going to grow grapes in Napa or play golf – but I had no real interest in going back into storage, ” Watkins says. “I looked at a lot of things, solar companies, all kinds of green tech opportunities, and this was by far the best.”

What Bridgelux has going for it, Watkins says, is the chance to disrupt the $100 billion global lighting industry, which is dominated by the likes of General Electric, (GE) Philips (PHG) and OSRAM. LEDs are manufactured with a process similar to that of computer chips, as opposed to incandescent light bulbs, which have changed little since the days of Thomas Edison. “It’s very rare that you get the opportunity to get into a market where the incumbents are living with the last vestiges of vacuum technology,” Watkins says. “Bridgelux can become a very large company if it just executes.”

A CEO with public company experience

That is clearly why Bridgelux’s venture capital investors, including Silicon Valley-based Vantage Point Venture Partners and DCM, have tapped Watkins as CEO. He has sat on the board since last October. Watkins’ tasks as CEO is to get Bridgelux big, and ultimately bring it public. Watkins has participated in five IPOs, the last in December 2002, when Seagate went public for the second time (it had been taken private by private equity shop Silverlake Partners in 2000). Mark Swoboda, who was CEO at Bridgelux, will stay on as president, focusing on sales and marketing and product development. “I didn’t come in to fix something, I wasn’t interested in doing that,” Watkins says. “I just bring more bandwidth.”

And apparently more money. Bridgelux is also on the verge of closing an oversubscribed round of venture capital that could top out north of  $50 million. The new round of funding will include all current VC investors, a new unnamed strategic investor and as many as three new VC firms. The current investors are deciding now who gets to participate and for how much. “It’s a classic challenge,” says Vantage Point Managing Director Marc Van Den Berg, who sits on the Bridgelux board. “Though now that I say that, it’s not a challenge that has confronted many VCs and startups for the past 18 months.”

Founded in 2002, that Bridgelux has already raised about $72 million in venture capital. The new round of funding will be used to expand manufacturing, including a new LED plant in the Bay Area, and to scale up all parts of the business, Watkins says.

Watkins started his new job last week, and is clearly fired-up to get back to running a business. “I promised my wife I wouldn’t look for a full-time job until September,” Watkins says. “I had a big-old X on my calendar across Labor Day when I could get out and do it. And here I am. I love the business of making things.”

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