Losing Out on Flexible Displays

The U.S. has likely missed this boat

Some high-tech industries based on taxpayer-funded research are gone even before U.S. companies put up their first plants. The latest example: low-power organic LEDs, or OLEDs.

For decades, U.S. labs have been working on ways to fabricate such devices on ultrathin sheets of plastic. U.S. startups have envisioned uses such as flexible diagnostic devices attached to the skin and head-mounted displays for soldiers. The big bucks, however, will likely be in large displays for TVs or computers—and most will come from Asian electronics companies, predicts Harvard Business School professor Willy C. Shih.

In the 1990s, Shih ran Eastman Kodak's consumer digital products unit. He wanted to build a plant to make OLED displays, which Kodak had invented and patented two decades earlier. "We concluded we didn't have the support industries or workforce," he says. Sony (SNE) and Samsung have since launched TVs with OLED screens. Kodak also has a product—a tiny OLED TV made under license by Kaga Electronics of Japan.

Soon such screens could be printed cheaply using a kind of inkjet technology. In the U.S., there's a new consortium for makers of large flexible displays, run by Daniel Gamota, a former Motorola (MOT) executive. But Gamota thinks the first successful startups will be in Europe, where governments are investing in manufacturing processes. "Here in the U.S., we have all the pieces," Gamota says. "But there has been no concerted effort to bring those pieces together."

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