One day in 1994 Sherwin Seligsohn, a high school dropout and technology entrepreneur, made a visit to the Princeton University lab of physicist Stephen R. Forrest and chemist Mark Thompson. The Princeton scientists were demonstrating to Seligsohn an interesting discovery they had made that they thought might have commercial applications. They had made a tiny carbon-based device that, when connected to a 9-volt battery, emitted a faint green glow for a few seconds.
“In that dim green light, Sherwin saw the future of electronic displays,” says Steven Abramson, Seligsohn’s business partner. Today Selighson is the chairman and Abramson the CEO of Universal Display Corporation, the Ewing-based company that arose from that lab visit. UDC develops technology and supplies materials for high-end organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays that are used on the most expensive, best-looking cell phones, televisions, and smart watches on the market.
In the 24 years of UDC’s existence it has gone from three employees to more than 200, obtained thousands of patents on OLED technology, and put its inventions into millions of phones, televisions, and other devices. UDC stock trades at $105 on the NASDAQ today, down from its high of $205 earlier this year, and the company is valued at $6 billion. Not a bad deal for shareholders who bought stock at $3 when it first went public.
All in all, Universal Display is one of the greatest success stories of Princeton’s efforts to commercialize technology developed in its labs. No wonder then, that Abramson was chosen to give the keynote address at the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM) technology symposium on March 13. The symposium was a chance for professors and companies to show off the innovations currently being developed within Princeton’s walls as well as the ones that have made it out into the marketplace. It was the first time the “annual” event had been held after a hiatus of 10 years.
“The conference was like coming home to me,” Abramson says. “I was remembering back in the day when we were part of those research organizations, and there I was giving the keynote address as part of an entrepreneurial program.”
UDC was not the first time Abramson and Seligsohn had worked together. Seligsohn was the founder of International Mobile Machines Corporation, a company that is today InterDigital Communications.
“Sherwin is a really interesting guy,” Abramson says. “He was a high school dropout because he was really smart and kind of bored in school. We have a joke that it takes Sherwin an hour or so to say hello because whenever you talk to him, he always has a few nuggets of wisdom. He has a mind different from anyone else I’ve ever interacted with.”
As a young man in the 1960s, Seligsohn had made a fortune on the stock market.
Abramson tells the story of the founding of International Mobile Machines this way: “One day he was sitting on the beach at the Jersey Shore wondering how his stocks were doing. He thought, ‘gee, I wish I had a portable stock quotation machine,’ or a portable phone to call his broker,” Abramson says. So he invented one — a prototype portable analog phone. Abramson says Seligsohn’s prototype cell phone eventually led to the development of digital cellular radio, a key technology used in cell phones.
As Seligsohn was building his tech company, Abramson was becoming disenchanted with his first choice of career as a lawyer. Growing up in Havertown, Pennsylvania, where his father owned an auto body shop and his mother was a librarian, Abramson had always been interested in science but pursued a law career instead, earning a JD at Temple in 1979. After a few years in private practice he was ready for a change of careers, and in 1982 he joined IMM as in-house counsel. The role afforded him the opportunity to switch over to a role running the business instead of just providing legal advice.
In 1990 Seligsohn stepped down as chairman of IMM and began looking for his next venture. After his fateful visit to Princeton in 1994 he teamed up with Abramson and Sidney Rosenblatt, who had gone to school with Abramson, to found UDC.
“We worked really well together, Sherwin, Sidney, and I,” Abramson says. “We kept bringing on other people.” He says Seligsohn was the visionary of the company, while he and Rosenblatt handled day-to-day operations, as they still do, with Rosenblatt serving as executive vice president and CFO.
In 1996 UDC went public. All it had to offer investors was “a research contract, a patent pending, and a great idea,” Abramson says. The company set up shop in an office above a liquor store on Nassau Street nearby Tiger Noodles and Hoagie Haven. “It was a great place to recruit,” Abramson says. Its stock market symbol was PANL, after the as-yet theoretical flat panel TVs that OLEDs would one day enable — a radical improvement over the gigantic cathode ray tube-powered boxes that were the norm. (Today the symbol is OLED, but in those days no one knew what an OLED was.)
Today it would be unusual for such an early stage company to go public instead of seeking venture capital, but for UDC it made sense. There was no telling how long it would take for OLED technology to mature from a primitive demonstration on a workbench to a financially viable product, and public investors are generally more patient than venture capitalists, who expect a return on a fixed timeline.
It wasn’t until 2011 that UDC finally made a profit. That whole time Abramson kept the company afloat through new infusions of capital. “It took us 20 years to become an overnight sensation,” Abramson jokes.
There was a lot of turnover within the investor base, but a few people have stuck with UDC since the beginning thanks to the revolutionary potential of the technology they had. UDC’s OLEDs are phosphorescent carbon-based chemicals that glow in response to an electrical current. A TV display has millions of red, green, and blue emitters that combine to form any visible color, and they are sharper and more efficient than competing LED and LCD high resolution displays. In addition to displays, white OLEDs can be used to make ultra efficient lighting panels.
UDC has also figured out how to mount OLED emitters on flexible plastic, making it possible to have a roll-up computer screen. In the early days of UDC the Defense Department agency DARPA funded the development of this technology with the idea that it could be used to create an interactive electronic map or roll-up computer/communication device that soldiers could use on the battlefield.
Abramson says the initial business plan for UDC was to be a company that invented the technology and licensed it out to manufacturers. But in his first visit to Asia, Abramson realized that the manufacturers needed the materials used to make OLEDs, so UDC became a manufacturing company as well. Today it makes OLED materials in western Pennsylvania and recently bought a plant in Delaware. The product is exported in incredibly tiny amounts — one gram is enough to make 1,000 TVs.
The company’s Phillip’s Boulevard headquarters is home to its corporate headquarters as well as its labs and clean rooms where researchers test new products.
Today UDC supplies technology and materials to Samsung, LG, Sharp, and other major manufacturers.
Despite UDC’s growth over the last few years, Abramson says there is much work to be done. “We still haven’t succeeded. We are on the road to success,” he says. He says the company is pushing toward a few different goals for the immediate future. One is to begin manufacturing blue PHOLED emitters (the PH stands for phosphorescent) — the third part of the RGB triumvirate that power digital displays; currently they only make red and green ones.
Another is to improve manufacturing technology to broaden the market for OLED displays. Currently OLED is at the more expensive end of the marketplace, which is saturated with cheap LED screens.
Another is to get lighting to take off in the same way that OLED displays have. “We view the future as being solid state lighting, not incandescent bulbs or fluorescent,” Abramson says. Currently there are only a few OLED lights on the market. And currently one of the only places in the world to see flat panel OLED displays is at UDC’s Phillips Road, Ewing, headquarters. But he hopes to change all that.
“We are still searching for the price break point for commercialization success, as well as the best form factor,” Abramson says.
He also hopes to see roll-up displays take off. “One day you may have to carry only your smartphone in your pocket, and you can pull it out and unfold it and it can be the size of an iPad,” he says. “That’s just extraordinary.”
Looking back on Abramson’s career, the progress made already is fairly extraordinary. He recalls reading Dick Tracy comic books when he was a kid and marveling at the hero’s two-way wristwatch radio. “He was able to speak into his watch and speak to the world. My watch right now is a Dick Tracy phone.”