Bright Idea: Startup Aims to Advance Solar Energy in Developing Countries
At age 19, Eden Full left Princeton University to develop her invention, the SunSaluter. The $25 solar-panel rotator, which she says can increase a panel's efficiency by as much as 40 percent, is designed to benefit those in developing countries because it is easy to assemble and doesn't require electricity. To get it off the ground, Full has spent the past two years in a whirlwind of client meetings, research and design, and field testing underwritten by the Ashoka Foundation, the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge and the Thiel Fellowship, which provides no-strings-attached grants of $100,000 to promising young startups. While her company, Roseicollis Technologies Inc., generates only enough revenue to cover costs, it's growing in size and reach. She has one full-time employee and three part-time designers and project developers, and is working on partnerships with organizations in South Africa, Indonesia, Kenya and the Philippines. In 2011, Forbes included her on its list of 30 promising energy innovators under 30.
This month, Full appeared on a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative University, an annual event that brings together enterprising college students and big names like Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and the Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert, to discuss the future of electricity. Afterward, she sat down with Entrepreneur to share SunSaluter's startup story and what's next for her. Now age 21 and living in Berkeley, Calif., she plans return to Princeton in the fall, managing her team in between classes via Skype. She also discusses why disrupting her own trajectory was the fastest route to launching a disruptive technology. Here's an edited version of the interview.
Entrepreneur: How, at such a young age, did you become focused on building a solar technology that could help in the developing world?
Full: My first solar experiment was a desktop solar car I built from a kit at age 10, and I kept experimenting from there. I brought the idea of the SunSaluter to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair my junior year in high school, and the girl next to me was from Indonesia. She said, "This is a cool idea. You should deploy it in my country because everywhere outside of Jakarta lacks electricity." I was so open-minded at the time. It was the first suggestion that came along, and it happened to be a good one.
Entrepreneur: You wrote about the SunSaluter in your Princeton college application essay. What was it like for you there?
Full: I immediately knew which professors I wanted to seek out. One of them did research in Kenya. When I made plans to travel there over the summer to help him, he said, "I'll give you a little bit of money on the side to start up the SunSaluter." It was my first time in a developing country, and I was young and naïve. I learned that while our product worked, it didn't work well. The trip taught me what the people there actually need and how to design better for them.
Entrepreneur: What happened when you got back to school for your sophomore year?
Full: I felt this growing frustration as the semester went on, thinking: They're making me do this problem set that's due Tuesday, but at the same time I could have been calling up a partner and fixing the SunSaluter. I had been thinking of taking some time off when a friend told me about the Thiel Fellowship. When I got it, I thought: This is just the structure I need.
Entrepreneur: What has life after Princeton been like for you, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of stepping outside of the traditional education trajectory?
Full: I felt a lot of freedom to finally be out in the real world and do what I wanted. I moved to the Bay Area. I could say, "Hi, I don't have a college degree, but I'm working on this." People don't even bat an eye. Thanks to support from the Ashoka Foundation, I had the funding to travel the globe and see what communities in the developing world are like, so I can design something that's relevant to them. We also won an award from the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge that we've directed toward product development and team building.
Entrepreneur: Where is your company today?
Full: We're now working on partnerships with organizations in South Africa, Indonesia, Kenya and the Philippines. Realizing that a lot of our partners want to build the SunSaluters themselves, we're structuring ourselves as a nonprofit organization that provides open-source technology and support. The social mission was always to get as many SunSaluters into the hands of as many people as possible. I have to stop thinking that it's my baby and let other people run with it and improve on it.
Entrepreneur: So what does the next year have in store for you?
Full: I promised myself that I would go back to Princeton. I don't feel that I had a complete experience, and to be honest, I had a lot of fun at college. I was on the rowing team and had a great community there. Plus, in the real world, I've begun to realize my own limitations. I didn't know how to use CAD software. I could learn these things from scratch, but it's easier, less stressful and more fun to learn it in a classroom environment. I can Skype with my team once or twice a day to say, "Here is the plan: You're going to handle partnership calls, and I'm going to handle this redesign -- and then do my homework."
Entrepreneur: What is your advice to entrepreneurs of all ages who are thinking of stepping outside of the traditional path?
Full: It can be scary to question one's life trajectory and make a decision to change it. But one of the best things I ever did was learn not to live the default.
Sarah J. Robbins is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor and the co-author of Keeping Hope Alive: One Woman -- 90,000 Lives Changed (Grand Central, 2013).