NOTE: This interview is the fifth and last of a special Thiel Fellows (Bright Minds Under 20) week at Daily BR!NK. Last March, twenty-four brilliant students were awarded $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation to spend the next two years in Silicon Valley pursuing their scientific, technical, and entrepreneurial projects. Since Daily BR!NK is all about up-and-comers and individuals revolutionizing their respective industries, we simply couldn’t resist featuring five trendsetters who will undoubtedly give you a glimpse at what tomorrow will look like.
INTERVIEW by LAUREN RIGNEY |BR!NK PHOTOGRAPHY by ILIANA MUÑOZ
For those of us who are of an age that nowhere near ends in “teen,” take a minute to reflect on your 19-year-old self. Maybe memories of college days and carefree summers surface. Or maybe you’re remembering that early job you’d rather forget. When Eden Full looks back on her life at 19, she’s going to remember the year she left her studies at Princeton University to move across the country and start her own solar energy business. Already a name in the solar community, Eden invented a cheap (roughly $10) device that optimizes solar panel energy collection by up to 40%. This Canadian-born teen earned her spot in the 20 Under 20 by seeking to change the world with efficient energy – and she’s already proven she can do it.
How did you find out you won a spot as a Thiel Fellow?
They gave me a call on a Friday in April. I called my parents the second I found out. Basically, afterwards my friends and I went to celebrate. It was pretty awesome.
If you weren’t in the two-year fellowship, when would you expect to graduate from Princeton?
2013. So 2015 once I return.
Have you enjoyed your two years as a college student?
Yeah, I have! I feel really sad that I have to go. That’s why I’m here [at Princeton] this summer to spend a little more time hanging out with friends and just to find some closure.
Thinking about your big move to the Bay Area, what are the biggest changes you think you’ll face once the fellowship kicks into full-gear?
I think one of the most exciting changes is that there’s no one set path. In the past it was always graduate high school, go to college… all of that. For once in my life there won’t be a straightforward path. I’m fully prepared to mess up, and I think that’s going to be one of the exciting parts – making mistakes and learning from them.
When did you found your solar business, Roseicollis Technologies?
When I was a kid I had this idea for a company I wanted to found. Formally it was founded last year, but I’ve had the idea since like 2006.
I’m certainly no expert on solar technology. Could you explain to me in laymen’s terms how your main product, the SunSaluter, works?
SunSaluter is a low-cost passive solar panel tracking system. So it rotates your solar panel from east to west every day and it optimizes energy collection by up to 40%. This is really important because solar panels aren’t that efficient right now, and they need as much as help they can get.
Solar panels already seem to be super popular for both small-scale and large-scale use. But you’re saying the problem is…
They’re just lying stationary now. Only at one point during the day will they be optimized to get the full potential. When you buy a solar panel, on the label it will say 60 watts. It’s kind of false advertising. You only get 60 watts at 12 o’clock noon if that’s how you aligned it – you don’t get it all the time.
So even in an ideal, sunny situation, without a tracking system like the SunSaluter, how long would a solar panel be collecting maximum energy?
Maybe one or two hours.
Last summer you went to Kenya to do some work with solar energy?
Yeah, I did. I went to Kenya last August and deployed two different prototypes of the SunSaluter in two different villages. Each village has about 500 people. I had all of these expectations what the electricity would be used for, but then I realized when I got there that it was a lot simpler than that. I didn’t realize they had never had electricity before.
There’s a town called Nanyuki about an hour’s drive away. A lot of them will go into town to charge their phones and lanterns. I remember the second week I was there, I was talking to this family in the morning, and the next day I came back and asked, “Oh, where’s your mom?” And the dad explained that she went out to collect firewood at night and she got trampled by a buffalo because she didn’t have any light. And that really struck me, because that kind of thing shouldn’t happen. Especially when something like a lantern is so easy to access. I think that’s when I realized that I really wanted to do this seriously.
When you went to Kenya, who were you with?
I kind of went there by myself.
I met up with a translator in the village. The communication barrier was a very interesting one. The women and children don’t speak English. When I came back to Princeton the following year, I took Swahili classes because when I go back to Kenya in the next year or so, I want to be able to communicate with them.
Have any of the villagers kept in touch and given you updates on the SunSaluters?
Oh yeah. Before I left, I bought the leaders of the village a couple of digital cameras, and I told them to send me monthly emails when they go into town and have a computer. Just last week I got an email and they were saying they recently decided to buy a couple of new lanterns. I think that’s great, because the village is really starting to embrace the technology and the use of electricity.
So our final question – how can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success, and the success of the SunSaluter?
I’m always looking for different perspectives. People who know places in the Bay Area that I should go to, or people who are familiar with the solar industry. I’m always looking for new perspectives on what the next steps are, and what’s the best way to launch this business. I’m definitely open to any advice that people have. They can feel free to shoot me an email, and I’d love to hear from them.