By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer
Andy Zsinko is thinking he may have what it takes to disrupt the lighting industry.
Why use incandescent, fluorescent or LED lighting when you can spray a thin paint on almost surface — flat or curved — apply an electric current to the coating and watch it glow as bright as any bulb?
That’s the concept behind Zsinko’s startup company, Darkside Scientific, in Medina and the environmentally friendly coating he spent years developing called LumiLor.
LumiLor is getting noticed. For instance, Progressive insurance has promoted LumiLor and Zsinko in videos and a full-page ad in Time magazine, showing the founder riding a lit-up LumiLor-painted motorcycle at night.
“World domination is next,” Zsinko quipped from Darkside Scientific’s offices and development space off West Smith Road.
In reality, Zsinko as founder and chairman and his team are taking small steps to bring LumiLor to different markets while raising money. They also are tweaking the formula for the electroluminescent substance, which they say is the first paint of its kind that can be applied to any curved surface.
Darkside right now is targeting what it calls aftermarket applications, things such as high-end custom-painting of motorcycles and other motor vehicles.
But the company is thinking well beyond those niches into what it calls primary markets such as the automobile industry.
LumiLor currently is very expensive — the company charges by the square inch. To paint a motorcycle similar to Zsinko’s demonstration model would cost between $70,000 and $80,000, they estimate.
The LumiLor paint on Zsinko’s motorcycle makes its gas tank look as though there is a light bulb inside shining out. But it is the paint doing the shining — and it can flash on and off.
“Essentially, you can turn it on and off like a light,” said Shawn Mastrian, Darkside’s chief executive officer. “Now we can paint any surface and make it into a light. It’s a spray-on coating that can go on complex curves.”
So-called electroluminescent paint has been around a long time, said Scott Sides, vice president of science, technology and environmental policy for the American Coatings Association trade organization. He said he knew little about Darkside Scientific and LumiLor other than what he has read and seen about them online.
“We love all innovation,” Sides said. “It’s an interesting application. It has a lot of interest and unique possibilities.”
Coatings companies are always working to move products from laboratories to the market, he said.
“I don’t think there’s a coatings manufacturer that wouldn’t want to find a billion square feet of something new to put coatings on,” he said. “Every coatings company is looking for that next big gold mine of surface.”
Darkside’s challenge will be to improve its LumiLor technology and bring it to market, he said.
“I’d be optimistic for them. They’ll be fun to watch,” Sides said. “That’s an interesting innovation track they are on. It has great curb appeal. ... It will be interesting to see where they can go.”
Zsinko, 55, has a background in custom-painting motorcycles and motor vehicles, along with computer technology.
“My dad owned body shops,” he said. “It was the intersection of paint and electronics.”
He said he became interested in glowing paint when asked to customize a motorcycle but found that what was available was unsatisfactory. Available photoluminescent paints — which absorb sunlight and then glow — discharged in about 15 minutes, he said. Zsinko said he wanted something that would last much longer and not fade and started looking at coatings that glow when hit with an electrical current.
“I worked out the basic idea in about 15 minutes and spent two years making it work,” Zsinko said. He ended up “renting a shed” to develop what eventually became LumiLor.
“I started off where people thought I was a nut,” Zsinko said. “The real key was not being tied to a philosophy or any particular kind of chemistry. ... It’s a system. Discoveries were necessary at each level. ... Over 80 percent of what I did failed. Some worked 30 seconds.”
In February 2011, he came up with a formula that worked the way he wanted it to. “It was damn near sexual,” he joked.
Zsinko and Mastrian, who has a business background, became friends over their common love of the Cleveland Browns. They met at a Browns training camp in 2006 — former University of Akron star Charlie Frye was the team’s new quarterback then.
“This company exists because of the Cleveland Browns,” Mastrian said.
Mastrian, who was running a cybersecurity company at the time and who has a degree in chemical engineering, agreed to help Zsinko with LumiLor.
“I remember the call, ‘We got it,’ ” Mastrian said.
Darkside is being assisted by Northeast Ohio business development organizations, including participating in the group called JumpStart Inc.’s mentoring program.
Darkside’s mentor is Michael Burke, president and chief executive of CryoThermic Systems Inc. in Broadview Heights.
“This is a company that has a phenomenal opportunity with a great product,” Burke said. The goals of the JumpStart Inc. Burton D. Morgan Mentoring Program include helping the young company and its inexperienced management team avoid major mistakes as they raise money, develop markets, refine their product and protect their intellectual property, he said. He described Darkside’s management team as bright and energetic.
“They now really understand what they have to do to be successful,” Burke said. “I think Darkside will be one of our success stories.”
He likened LumiLor to the colorful, glowing special effects in the Walt Disney science fiction movie Tron.
“It’s quite futuristic. I think it will have tremendous entertainment appeal and practical appeal as it becomes more robust,” Burke said.
Mastrian and Zsinko said they have taken steps to protect the company and its technology.
“Andy figured out how to unlock the keys,” Mastrian said. “Now all this other stuff is available to us. ... A lot of stuff had to come together just right. This is a visual product. You have to see and understand this.”
The company’s initial steps use LumiLor for custom paint jobs, with just four to five people now trained to properly apply the coating.
“We have a vision where we’ll have a number of places up and running,” Mastrian said.
The current incarnation of LumiLor has a half-life of about 10,000 hours, meaning it loses half its brightness by that period. New formulas are being developed to “significantly” increase that half-life, Zsinko said.
Lighting a LumiLor-coated motorcycle for three hours a night means a person likely would have to replace an engine before needing a new paint job, Zsinko said. By comparison, a typical incandescent light bulb lasts 2,000 to 3,000 hours, he said.
When he started working on what became LumiLor, he was trying to keep his expectations “reasonable,” Zsinko said. “I just started out making better looking motorcycles at night. What it has grown into is absolutely staggering.”
They think they have something with great potential.
“Literally, what we can do is replace everything in the lighting market, and that’s a $300 billion market,” Mastrian said.
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.