The Signs They Are A-Changin'

Startup Magink's digital ink may change everything from billboards to laptops

To sports fans, giant TV-like displays have become old hat. Huge screens composed of thousands of light-emitting diodes (LEDS) treat fans to instant replays and sparkling, computer-generated graphics at Yankee Stadium, Houston Astrodome, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and dozens of other stadiums. Similar LED signs, many supplied by Japan's Mitsubishi Electric Corp. (MIELY ), help to light up New York's Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip.

A slim new Mitsubishi sign, however, is neither an LED screen nor a king-size liquid-crystal display (LCD) panel. It has a paperlike surface sporting a breakthrough "digital ink" from Magink Display Technologies Inc., an Israeli startup now based in New York. Mitsubishi is Magink's manufacturing partner. It's not the only heavy hitter in Magink's corner. In July, it picked up $27 million from a group led by VantagePoint Venture Partners in Silicon Valley. The money will be used to bring Magink's technology to the U.S.

What's the big deal? Magink's digital ink is the first to offer a full spectrum of colors. It's a pasty concoction that, smeared on a thin sheet of plastic or glass, can replace LEDs in monster displays or small LCDs in electronic products. To VantagePoint partner Duncan Davidson, Magink's ink is "extraordinary technology" that promises a revolution in displays, starting with outdoor advertising -- a $5 billion U.S. business.

The initial cost of a 10-by-20-foot Magink billboard will probably run around $50,000. That's not cheap compared with the $10,000 cost of a conventional display, but it's a bargain compared with the $500,000-and-up price of an LED screen that size.

More important to billboard owners, says Magink CEO Ran Poliakine, is return on investment. Digital ink can end the cost of printing paper ads and manually plastering them on billboards -- and create a new revenue stream: selling variably priced time-slot ads, just as TV stations do. Poliakine figures that by charging a premium for rush-hour ads, a billboard could rake in 10 times more money. The same goes for placards in trains and buses, mass-transit stations, and elsewhere. "With today's billboards, you can't announce Lotto winners minutes after the drawing," he notes. "With Magink, you can."

Magink's secret is a blend of organic molecules that produces a paste consisting of tiny structures resembling the DNA helix. Each helix is about one micron long and responds in a predictable way to signals from a control grid on the plastic or glass substrate. Under white light, the helixes normally look red. But send a certain signal from a computer to a specific grid junction, and the helixes there change shape slightly and turn blue. Other signals produce green, yellow, or other hues. The screen can be repainted 70 times a second -- double the speed for full-motion video -- or an image can be frozen for months without fading. "The technology really does work like magic," says Poliakine.


Japan is already feeling the magic. Mitsubishi is installing Magink information displays at highway rest stops and roadside tourist centers. They provide news, a list of local attractions, and traffic and weather conditions for the next 100 miles. Each sign can be updated instantly via a wireless transmission, says Poliakine. Similarly, Japan Railways Group can press a "send" button and update all of its Magink timetable displays on train platforms.

Magink isn't the only digital ink on the market. Last March, Royal Philips Electronics (PHG ) and Sony Corp. (SNE ) unveiled an electronic book with a paperlike display. It uses the ink developed by E Ink Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. But this ink, like those in the works at Gyricon, IBM (IBM ), and Siemens (SI ), is only black and white. "Other companies just haven't gotten over the full-color hurdle," boasts Poliakine. By winning that race, tiny Magink may light up the countryside like Broadway.

By Otis Port in New York

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