rethink sustainability

    The CLIC® Chronicles: Meet Glowee, the startup creating sustainable lighting from bioluminescent bacteria

    Where once humanity’s potential hours of activity ended with the setting of the Sun, the explosion of electric lighting that’s occurred since the 1800s has, in effect, unlocked the ability to do anything, anywhere, anytime. However, this profound civilisational leap has come at a cost.

    Today, over 80% of the global population and 99% of Americans and Europeans live under a glowing sky. The sheer intensity of the light in some urban areas can disrupt our circadian rhythms, leading to reduced melatonin production, fatigue, stress, and other health problems. It can also disrupt the circadian rhythms of animals as well as other behaviours such as navigation, leading to the disorientation and even death of animals like birds and sea turtles.1 Lighting also produces a significant amount of physical waste – even the latest LED lightbulbs, which are significantly more environmentally friendly than old-style incandescent and fluorescent lighting, contain some components that can’t be recycled.3

    But what if it were possible to replace at least some of those light bulbs with another kind of lighting technology: one that was less intense yet still bright enough, and which produced no waste?

    Discover our CLIC® Shapers video with Sandra Rey, founder and CEO of Glowee:

    The spark of life

    This was the possibility that struck French design student Sandra Rey in 2013, when she discovered videos of bioluminescent aquatic bacteria illuminating the oceans. If the natural light of the Sun isn’t the only natural light available, why couldn’t these microscopic creatures replace some of the artificial lighting technology we currently need? Rey realised that a lighting technology based on bioluminescent bacteria would meet both of these criteria: it would be less intense – indeed, it would be serenely beautiful – and, given that bacteria are part of the biosphere anyway, it would produce no waste.

    Glowee focuses on producing versions of urban furniture…that incorporate an appropriately sized and shaped tank of bioluminescent bacteria

    Determined to bring her vision to life, Rey founded Glowee, a lighting startup whose products are based entirely around the light produced by bioluminescent bacteria. Given the problems with today’s street lighting technologies, Glowee focuses on producing versions of urban furniture which currently include some sort of artificial lighting technology – such as signage and ambient lighting – that instead incorporate an appropriately sized and shaped tank of bioluminescent bacteria. The result is an ethereal, natural glow that adds an enchanting ambience to the urban environment.

    Rey says, “The goal behind using this light is to reduce the impact of light pollution on biodiversity, to have a light that is more respectful to creatures like insects and birds.”

    Read also: The CLIC® Chronicles: The tree of life – powering the circular bioeconomy

    How to make a living light

    Bioluminescent creatures create light using just two proteins. When a pair of these proteins reacts together with oxygen, they emit a photon of light. When many of these reactions occur at once, you get that familiar, beautiful bioluminescent glow.

    Though bioluminescent creatures come in many shapes and sizes, it was clear to Rey that Glowee’s new technology should be based on bacteria. As Rey explains, “Bacteria are, of course, bio-sourced and biodegradable. We can grow them in the lab, so there’s no need to extract limited resources from the planet. We can produce hundreds of billions of bacteria from just one bacterium in the lab.”

    Bacteria are, of course, bio-sourced and biodegradable. We can grow them in the lab, so there’s no need to extract limited resources from the planet

    When suspended in seawater, you can’t see the creatures themselves – just an even, steady glow. Glowee’s lighting products incorporate a tank of this bacteria-laced seawater connected to an air pump that keeps the oxygen flowing; so, as long as you regularly add yeast for food, the bacteria should keep glowing for as long as you need them to. Glowee’s products are also designed to connect to urban water management systems – so, should something like a temperature shock kill the bacteria, the contents of the tank can be flushed into the environment where the dead bacteria will degrade naturally. Then, to replace the light, just add seawater, yeast, and a few bacteria and wait a few hours for them to grow.

    Read also: The CLIC® Chronicles: Meet Néolithe: the start-up putting an end to landfill


    Spreading the glow

    Though it’s still early days for Glowee, the startup is clear on how it intends to make bioluminescent lighting a common sight in many of our cities.

    Glowee’s recent installation in the French city of Rambouillet, in collaboration with the local authority, showcases urban furniture which shines brilliantly as it contains luminescent marine bacteria that diffuse an azure glow. Not only are parts of Rambouillet benefiting from entirely natural lighting – a more energy efficient model has been put in place. Glowee aims to continue introducing its designs in terms of technology, operability, environmental impact, and public reception on a permanent basis around the world over the next five years.

    Besides the problems urban lighting creates for the environment and human health, Glowee decided to make this its initial focus because such lighting is exposed to the elements, which presents a significant technological and economic challenge for a system based on living organisms. Mastering the urban context is intended to enable the next phase of Glowee’s strategy, which consists of two projects. First, the team will use the expertise they gained in urban settings to create bioluminescent lighting products designed for more straightforward indoor contexts, such as ambient lighting in museums and relaxing light for hotels and spas. And second, Glowee will develop the products and services that other manufacturers need to integrate bioluminescent light into their own designs, which Rey also intends to be able to offer within five years.

    Read also: Green hydrogen: government lays down challenge for French industry

    If we could replace even some of our harsh artificial lighting with bioluminescent lighting, we could not only help protect the natural world from the effects of light pollution and waste. We could also make human civilisation more beautiful

    Sustainable magic

    Something about the beauty of bioluminescent light evokes a sense of magic that tinges Rey’s vision of the future Glowee might create: one in which we can all “grow” light without producing any waste – as much as we need, wherever and whenever we need it. Perhaps even in space. As Rey puts it, “I would say that the best waste is the kind that does not exist. This is the case when you use living systems. In nature, there is no waste. Just resources.” If we could replace even some of our harsh artificial lighting with bioluminescent lighting, we could not only help protect the natural world from the effects of light pollution and waste. We could also make human civilisation more beautiful.


    1 National Geographic (n.d.) ‘Light Pollution’. Available here.
    2 Amit, K., Kuppusamy V. K., Holuszko M., Song S., and Loschiavo A. (2019) ‘LED lamps waste in Canada: Generation and characterization’, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Vol 146, July 2019, pp. 329–336. Available here.

    Important information

    This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

    Read more.


    let's talk.