There she is, on page 32 of the glossy magazine, the Star Ledger’s Inside Jersey, one of six women in the story on “The 20 Brainiest People in New Jersey.” Most (18 of 20) work at brain trusts like Princeton University, Rutgers, or the Institute for Advanced Study. Julie J. Brown is the only one from a publicly held company.
Brown is the senior vice president and chief technology officer of Universal Display Corporation. Its products — displays and “white lighting” gadgets — are based on organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology and high efficiency phosphorescent (PHOLED) technology.
They include everything from cell phone screens that are on the market today to future television screens more fabulous than any you can imagine. Founded in 1994 based on the academic work of a Princeton University professor, UDC now employs 100 people, some working in two shifts, in 40,000 square feet at Princeton Crossroads Corporate Center on Phillips Drive in Ewing. And it has turned the corner on making a profit. Brown has been with UDC almost from the beginning, when it had just a second-floor office located a stone’s throw from Princeton University’s engineering quad.
Her story is the kind you like to hear: Smart person with drive and passion gets recognized and encouraged by prescient and brilliant mentor (Princeton professor Stephen R. Forrest) who — 10 years later — recruits said person for his new company. Because Brown is a woman engineer, it’s an even better story.
Named an IEEE fellow and to the New Jersey Technology Hall of Fame, Brown is known for her drive and passion for accomplishment. Among her admirers is serial entrepreneur Greg Olsen: “Julie just gets the job done, period. Most people do anything but that. She is an exception.”
As one looks to the future, OLEDs of any kind can be applied to non-glass materials such as metal foil and plastic. The power here is that these displays are non breakable, ultra light weight, and can conform to any shape. The U.S. military studied how these flexible screens could be used as bracelet smart phones by soldiers in the field.
Brown says, with reason, that UDC’s technology and materials get the highest efficiency rating for OLED specialty and general lighting applications, and that they are used in most of the OLED display products on the market. UDC has been a pioneer in the development of flexible and transparent screens.
It has a clear field. The company has more than 1,200 issued and pending patents worldwide; many are held by Princeton University. “Any manufacturer who will use this energy efficient, green PHOLED technology will have or need a relationship with UDC,” says Brown. “UDC has the entire market for PHOLED technology. A PHOLED diode contains phosphorescent molecules invented by us and made by us.”
UDC licenses its technology to, for instance, Pioneer, the first producer of cell phones with UDC’s PHOLED technology. “Next on the scene was AUO out of Taiwan,” says Brown. “And then Samsung SDI latched onto the PHOLED technology. You can see it in Samsung’s Galaxy 5 mobile phones, for example. Samsung took the lead in manufacturing OLED cell phones and earned an early market position. Today Samsung Mobile Displays is the leading mass producer of OLED cell phones using PHOLED technology.” UDC also supplies efficient and stable PHOLED and OLED materials to display and lighting manufacturers, and it offers technology development and transfer services.
These proprietary materials and the technology are now in such demand that, in 2011, the company turned a profit for the first time. UDC doubled its revenues to $61 million and made more than $3 million in net profit, compared to a net loss of $20 million in 2010. It also raised $250 million in a stock offering last year. Commentators for Motley Fool began to beat the drums loudly for UDC (NASDAQ stock symbol PANL) on March 7.
“The field of OLED for lighting is rapidly developing right now. And our record energy efficient PHOLED performance is absolutely critical for lighting,” says Brown. She looks forward to the time when OLEDs and PHOLEDs will be cost competitive for general lighting, a day that will be accelerated as the Department of Energy offers incentives for commercial energy applications.
Though female engineers were rare when Brown began her career, she claims she was neither hindered nor helped by being a woman. She claims no “traditionally feminine” traits. Yet when asked how she has achieved her success, the word ego –– or lack of it –– comes into play. The ability to put herself in someone else’s shoes, to understand what someone needs before they know they need it, has been useful. Her cohorts know that, in working through a problem, she can get to a solution without her ego getting in the way.
Steve Forrest calls her the quintessential “no ego” manager. In an E-mail from the University of Michigan, where he has worked on materials and devices for energy applications, including OLEDs for efficient lighting, and solar cells for energy conversion, since leaving Princeton in 2006, Forrest describes Brown’s style: to get everyone to participate in a solution to a problem, let them discuss the pros and cons, and then come to a decision. “That isn’t to say this is management by consensus. That can never serve for solid decision making. Julie is definitely not afraid of making tough choices, but the process of getting there is inclusive. That is a rather unusual, and in her case highly successful, style in technology companies today. Julie’s management and decision-making approach is one of the principal elements that has led to UDC’s success.”
Julie Johnson Brown grew up in the northeast — New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania — and watched her parents juggle their careers and academe. Her mother, always studying, completed her college degree while Brown and her sister were young. Her father worked as a chemical engineer for DuPont, then in his 40s went back to school for his PhD in computer science — and he was always studying. After high school (Phillips Exeter) she majored in electrical engineering at Cornell.
She encountered Forrest at Bell Labs, her second job after graduation in 1984. As a junior electrical engineer she was frustrated by the lack of personal opportunity. “I loved the work, but I was always working on someone else’s project. I was very curious and eager to learn how to run my own projects.”
Forrest left Bell Labs for USC, but in 1986 he found a place for Brown in his PhD program in electrical engineering/electrophysics. USC was trying to attract American students. After earning her degree she lived in Santa Monica and worked for Hughes Research Labs.
Along the way, she met her future husband, Bobby Brown, a musician, artist, photographer, and audiophile. She tells the story of an elevator encounter late one night. “His friend, who had had a little too much to drink, made a crack and I threw it right back on him. But Bobby heard my eastern accent, tracked down the number of my apartment, and knocked on my door.”
At age 38, after seven years at a big company, and having decided not to have children, she was ready for a change. Her husband, then in his 40s, could take early retirement to pursue his photography. She called Forrest for advice. Come east, Forrest said, I have the job for you.
In 1997 the company was in the invention phase. Forrest, a physicist at Princeton, was the co-inventor along with chemist Mark Thompson, also then at Princeton. Thompson and Forrest were still working on the technology, trying to take OLED into PHOLED. Forrest had graduated from UC Berkeley (Class of 1976) and earned a PhD from the University of Michigan. He would come to Princeton University and would contribute to the development of Princeton-based companies, including Sensors Unlimited, Epitaxx Inc., ASIP, and Global Photonic Energy Corporation. Forrest is now at Michigan, and Thompson is at USC; both are members of UDC’s scientific advisory board and continue to work closely with Brown.
The founder of the company, Sherwin L. Seligsohn, now 75, is something of a Renaissance man. As a young man with no college degree, he had made his fortune in the stock market and plunged the proceeds into other companies that could fulfill his vision for a particular technology. They include American Biomimetics, International Multi-Media, InterDigital Communications, Global Photonic Energy Corporation and, then — to devise the next phase of lighting –– Universal Display Corporation. Not content with just investing money, he takes an active role — from designing the vision to the company logo. He has been the board chairman from inception.
Also on board then were attorney Steven B. Abramson (Bucknell, Ohio State, and Temple), who was the chief operating officer and is now CEO; Sidney Rosenblatt, executive VP and chief financial officer; and Janice Mahon, vice president of technology commercialization (Rensselaer ’97, Harvard MBA). All are still with the company. Abramson is now CEO, and Mahon has added general manager of PHOLED material sales to her titles.
Brown joined this crew the following year.
“In 1999 Janice and I had an office above Redding Plumbing, on Nassau Street at Olden Avenue.” It was a powerful combination. “We really complement each other,” says Brown.
Phosphorescent lighting was supposedly impossible, explains Brown. Everyone else was focused on the notoriously inefficient fluorescent technology. Fluorescent molecules in solid state mode will relax and give off light. But only some of them give off light, and the others give off heat. “Mark and Steve knew it should be possible for phosphorescent molecules to give off light, even though some said it wasn’t possible,” says Brown. “Driven by curiosity, they joined their sciences, wanting to enter a new science.” Their first color was a deep ruby red, and then they tuned the light emission around the color space.
To understand the company’s technology challenges, some scientific background is in order. OLED refers to “organic light emitting displays.” UDC developed and invented molecules that emit light. A regular cell phone starts with white light and screens out the extra rays to produce colors. For an OLED cell phone screen, each color emits its own light, producing vibrant hues. Compared to an LED/LCD TV, OLED screens have redder reds and blacker blacks. On a TV screen, movement can be captured at a faster speed than even high definition TV.
PHOLED (phosphorescent OLED) molecules are even more powerful because they offer maximum energy efficiency compared to a conventional OLED or a fluorescent OLED (FL-OLED).
From 2000 to 2010 the R&D team worked doggedly on moving the technology into providing practical products — in red, blue, and green — and building the business. Brown was the highest ranking technical person, and her input was central to the technology, the patents, and choosing the people to grow the business. “She maintains a long-term vision of the importance of bringing new technologies constantly into the company,” says Forrest. “She knows, more than most, that technology leadership is fleeting and must constantly be reasserted by the injection of new ideas.”
That worry is what keeps Brown up at night. “Our field is highly competitive,” she says. “I am always thinking about the next breakthrough.”
What could it possibly be? Will you be reading this newspaper on flexible PHOLED pages that turn? The next technology could be anything. “It will open up a design space that cannot be fully imagined yet,” says Brown. “Think about prior to LCD flat screens — would you have thought about a laptop?”
Even when UDC was about to run out of money, she never wavered from her long-term vision. “She has a keen sense of when a technology will pay off, and when to let it go,” says Forrest. “As such, she is the perfect partner to work with.”
“All of our products start with innovation,” says Brown, explaining why UDC employs experts in so many fields — physics, chemistry, materials science, electrical engineering, and industrial design. “In the expert area of chemistry the team is very multidisciplinary including mechanistic, analytical, photo physical, and both inorganic and organic chemists.”
After an interview in UDC’s dimly lighted demo room, with brilliant PHOLED gadgets lining the walls, Brown takes a mini-tour of the building. First, the cafeteria, where everyone gathers for pizza and birthday cake on Wednesdays. We stop by her office, where her husband’s art photography is prominently displayed. Then she shows off one of the “clean rooms,” which take up about one-third of the 40,000-square-foot building. A woman in surgeon’s garb punches the dials on a machine that, layer by layer, makes a phosphorescent OLED test screen to analyze a newly invented molecule. Also visible through the window are two vials of UDC’s “secret sauce,” phosphorescent yellow powder. Cost per ounce? Brown won’t say.
How did she happen to end up on the pages of Inside Jersey magazine? No one ever asked her about it, she says. It’s nice to be recognized, she admits, but the true rewards come from the work. Says Brown: “It’s exciting to discover this technology — to have the full cycle experience of moving from the molecular design on a white board, to making it for the first time, and then within a day seeing it actually being made in an OLED device, and then be able to convince a manufacturer to use the device — and then hold it in my hand after purchasing it in a store.”
Universal Display Corporation, 375 Phillips Boulevard, Ewing, 08618. Steven Abramson, CEO. 609-671-0980. www.universaldisplay.com