Creating CREE

Co-founders of the groundbreaking LED lighting company still pal around like brothers — just like they did at NC State.

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They remembered. They joked. They ate. And they cheered.

For many of the founders of Cree, Inc., this year’s Distinguished Engineering Alumni dinner gave them a chance to do what they’ve been doing since their graduate school days: have fun. The alumni — Calvin Carter Jr., John Edmond, Neal Hunter and John Palmour — have been trading laughs, giving each other grief, and enjoying business success for more than a quarter century.

“To have a team stick together that long is actually incredibly unusual in a start-up situation,” Palmour said. “We’ve all been able to fight vehemently and then go out and have a beer.”

By working together, the group has helped build a powerhouse in the growing LED lighting industry. Cree, headquartered at the edge of the Research Triangle Park in Durham, NC, employs 4,000 workers globally and is among the world’s top manufacturers of LEDs, or light-emitting diodes.

LEDs, which come in many forms, are semiconductor devices that turn electricity into light. Bulbs featuring the technology are gaining popularity because they use less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs, which haven’t changed much since the days of Thomas Edison.

After more than two decades of steady growth for Cree, the NC State alumni can look back on a string of successes for themselves and the company. The group attended the dinner to celebrate the accomplishments of Palmour, who is the third Cree founder, along with Carter and Hunter, to receive the College’s top alumni award.

“NC State set the basis for all of it,” Carter said. “We’re all very proud of our university degrees.”

Cree’s roots date to 1983 in an NC State materials science and engineering lab. Edmond, Palmour and Hunter’s brother, Eric, were students of legendary researcher Dr. Robert Davis, and Carter was a research assistant professor in the lab. The group was investigating the properties of silicon carbide, a rare, naturally occurring material that researchers thought would be able to operate at higher temperature and power levels than materials found in traditional semiconductors.

Eric Hunter eventually left the group and teamed up with his brother, Neal, an NC State mechanical engineering graduate student, to launch a start-up technology company. But when the Hunter brothers saw the advances the materials group was making, they scrapped their initial idea and offered to help the group bring the silicon carbide research to market instead. Thomas Coleman, a sixth founder who was from outside NC State, was also part of the team.

By 1987, when the company was formally founded, the researchers had devised a way to grow silicon carbide crystals and use them in ways that could be used for lighting. These promising results helped them scrape together enough money through family connections, credit accounts and sheer determination to start paying themselves and find lab and office facilities.

“We were too young and stupid to know it couldn’t be done,” Palmour said, laughing.

From there, the company grew steadily, making many notable technological achievements along the way. In 1989, Cree introduced the world’s first blue light-emitting diode, a landmark that paved the way for billboards and large video screens to produce full-color displays. Two years later, the company released the world’s first commercial silicon carbide wafers. In 1993, it made its initial public offering, and by the middle of 2001 it had amassed nearly 1,000 employees.

Today, the company’s LED chips are found in digital camera flashes, traffic signals, cell phone backlighting and many other applications. Cree’s lights and lighting components brighten spaces in businesses and homes all over the world.

Along the way, most of the group has remained close, and they take great pride in hiring others who share their non-political, no-nonsense approach to business. Eric Hunter left Cree in the 1990s, but the other NC State alumni remain in influential positions with the company. They credit much of their success to their relationships with each other.

“We definitely consider ourselves brothers. We love like brothers and fight like brothers and laugh like brothers,” Carter said. “We have a good time.” end of story

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