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This interview is part of a podcast series called “Entrepreneurs & Economic Development” talking to entrepreneurs using business and technology to solve problems at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Listen to the interview by clicking play above or read the dialogue below.
You will learn:
- How a High School Science fair turned into a lifelong passion
- Information about the Thiel Fellowship
- A History of SunSaluter
- SunSaluter’s Global Expansion into 15+ countries
Mentioned in this interview:
- CrowdRise – SunSaluter’s Crowdfunding Campaign
- Thiel Fellowship
- The Skilled Samaritan Foundation
- Skoll Foundation
Where to find Eden:
Feel Free to Comment or Connect
Start of Interview
Ryan: Okay, Welcome to the “Entrepreneurs and Economic Development” Podcast Eden and if you could tell us a bit more about SunSaluter that would be fantastic.
Eden: Ya, Thanks for having me on the podcast Ryan. My name is Eden Full and I developed a technology called SunSaluter. SunSaluter is a technology that rotates solar panels without using any electric so that they can optimize their energy collection by up to 30 per cent. Pretty much every single day reliably so that you can get as much juice out of your solar panels as possible and our solar trackers are specifically designed for the developing world because we’ve experienced in our conversations with end users and partners and other customers that they really need to be able to get as much electricity out of those panels as they can. In some of these areas solar panels are still so expensive that it’s actually more cost effective to be implementing a solar tracker or solar rotator on your solar panel rather than buying another solar panel to get the 30% more electricity that you need. We are currently deployed in 15 different countries and counting and we’ve impacted over 6-7000 people all around the world with our technology. Our manufacturing headquarters is based in Bangalore, India where we are doing a lot of prototyping and continued revisions of our designs. I’m really excited that we’ve had an opportunity to build out a team. We’ve had a chance to start collaborating with a lot of really great organizations. We’re actually doing a crowdfunding campaign right now to light up a village in India called Khoiri and basically it’s been great to have the support of a lot of awesome people around the world and if you guys would like to check that out please do. Check out our social media or website at SunSaluter.com.
Ryan: That’s fantastic. My first question is “How does a Canadian from a northern country get involved with a solar project? Where did you get your first interest in solar?
Eden: I started working on solar when I was pretty young. I remember is started out as a science experiment I did when I was nine or 10 years old, and I built a little desktop solar car. For experimentation, just curiosity and I remember after building that I was hooked. You know I though it was really magical, it seemed like magic at the time that you could get electricity all just from the sun. And so over the next few years of my life I’ve had a chance to work on some research projects to develop technologies that I thought would add value to the solar industry.
I was actually at a science fair in high school when I exhibited a very early prototype of the SunSaluter at the time and someone walked up to me and commented, you should totally implement this technology in the developing world. It might actually be a better fit because it’s so simple and the intention was to build a solar rotator that was really cost effective, really easy to maintain. So that anyone no matter if you a five-year-old or a villager in Kenya or a high school student that doesn’t have any formal technical training or you’re an engineer. Any of these people and more should be able to maintain and build and continue to spread the word about the SunSaluter technology.
So I had a chance to travel to Kenya in my freshman summer, so the summer after my first year of university and actually deploy the SunSaluter technology and after that when I realized that there’s was so much work to be done. So much to be done to improve the technology and the implementation. I really felt like I needed to make this a priority so that I could focus my time, full-time on it and really make sure that it went somewhere, because its very easy to do something and then be tempted by the rest of the burdens of your everyday life and not have the project go anywhere. I received a Fellowship called “the Thiel Fellowship”, which gave me the financial support and the mentorship to be able to focus on SunSaluter full time for 2 years away from University. And I had a chance to build out our team and I had a chance to refine our technology during that time. Then after that point I decided I wanted to return to university to continue to build out some of my technical skills. I studied mechanical engineering in University and you know I’ve gone back for what I’ve really been looking for, and now I’m ready to continue my work on SunSaluter and I’m ready to continue to build other interesting projects in a related space.
Ryan: Okay, so I’d like to go back to that high school science fair. I’m curious if you still know that person that mentioned solar tracking in the developing world.
Eden: It was just a bystander so it was someone who was walking by my project at the time but I don’t think they fully recognized or are aware that they’ve probably changed my life in a very profound way. But if I ever see that person again I’ll be sure to let them know.
Ryan: Okay, that’s exactly why I asked, just these random serendipitous moments that can the course of history for thousands of people.
Eden: Ya, I hope so. SunSaluter is still a work in progress so we want to have more and more impact. And I see the potential of this technology has in some of the places that are harder to reach. So I think we still have a lot of work to do, because some of the areas we’ve reached so far have been easier to access.
We have a lot of connections in India and East Africa that have made it possible for us to be there first. But the countries that really need us the most are the countries that are hardest to ship to, where solar panels are really expensive. You know there are fewer partners working there because they are not one of the popular countries to be doing development work in. So, you know we are still actively expanding our operations and we are hopeful we can continue to build this out.
Ryan: I’m curious how the Thiel Fellowship affected SunSaluter? Was it a matter of putting you together with amazing people that that propelled your growth or how did it accelerate your operations?
Eden: The Thiel fellowship definitely provided a platform for me to spread the word about what I was working on. The Thiel Fellowship was also great because it connected me to a lot of interesting mentors and people who have had experience executing on projects before, even though they are not directly relevant.
Another thing is that the Thiel Fellowship did provide financial support to fund some of the early parts of SunSaluter and to also make it possible for a starving college student to work on her life’s passion for two years conscientiously. I’m very grateful to the Thiel Fellowship for everything that they’ve given me. It definitely changed my life, a number of these things changed my life in a very fundamental and very profound way so I’m very grateful.
Ryan: So I’m going to provide links in the show notes but if you could just give a quick snippet of what the Thiel Fellowship is for readers at home. I think it’s a very interesting project that Peter Thiel started.
Eden: Sure, so Peter Thiel is the first investor in Facebook and was one of the founders of PayPal. He’s a very respected member of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurship community. And he had this idea that college is over rated these days, people are just kind of going through the motions and it’s not providing the value that they need, and it’s over priced.
So he developed a fellowship programs to encourage students under the age of 20 whether their current college students or even High school graduates, or even students still in high school. Most of the fellows are within the 16 -19 age range. He gives them a $100,000 stipend. No strings attached, spread out over two years to work on an interesting project that they’re passionate about that has the potential to change the world. The only condition is that you cannot be formally enrolled in educational institution during the time of fellowship. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity because it gives students who might otherwise be stuck in an academic environment or not in an environment that’s conducive to their learning and research and execution abilities. It gives these students a chance to actually try their hand at doing something real. And so in my personal opinion college is what you make of it. For some people they need to go through all of college or some people they don’t need to finish college. For some people they need to get what they want and then leave. And for some people they don’t even need to go to college at all.
So from my perspective I got what I needed out of college, that’s pretty much everything that I needed was the mechanical engineering background. So I’m very grateful for having had the chance to go to college before the Fellowship and I went back to college for a little bit after the fellowship and I think I’m very grateful for this opportunity to see what it’s like inside and outside of academia. I think it’s added to my experience as an inventor, as an engineer in a very substantial way. So I wouldn’t say there’s a one-size-fits-all kind of answer to whether or not college is valuable.
Ryan: Okay, so how does the SunSaluter build their business. You are a solar tracking mechanism but is it a for-profit model? Is it a nonprofit? Is it open source?
Eden: So SunSaluter is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formally registered in the United States. Our goal as a governing non-profit is to provide a platform and resources for entrepreneurs in some of our local partner areas to build for-profit enterprises locally around our technology so we, as a larger organization are a non-profit but the whole goal is to encourage the development of for-profits. For one of our product lines we do have a goal of open sourcing it’s design. So that even the most remote areas or anyone has a goal or dream of building a SunSaluter would be able to do so.
We do have different iterations of the SunSaluter. So were going to open source the simplest version of it. And the other versions of the SunSaluter for example are designed for larger solar installations were talking KiloWatts here, that design is going to be proprietary and will be primarily reserved for our partners who are interested in developing for-profit enterprises around the technology.
Ryan: Have you guys thought of … I listened to one last week about Embrace and how they have a for-profit and nonprofit. Have you looked at that model as well?
Eden: Ya, that’s pretty much what were doing but the non-profit is based in the US and the for profit is based in our partner countries.
Ryan: Okay, so why Bangalore?
Eden: Basically we had a connection there. We were featured in the “New York Times” a couple year ago and this awesome Indian guy e-mailed me and said “Let’s work on something together” and so we did!
And it turned into pretty much the greatest partnership I have ever experienced. I’m very grateful to both Krishnan and Guru our partners in India, in Bangalore. Who have been so supportive and they’ve really put in a lot of their own time and resources into getting SunSaluter off the ground and this entire project would not be possible without them.
Ryan: And so are you in Karnataka state primarily? Or are you expanding all across India?
Eden: We have deployments all across India and were hoping to develop a manufacturing base in Northern India as well. But I would say at this time our manufacturing operations and some of our local deployments because simply due to logistics it’s a lot easier to just deploy in and around Karnataka.
Ryan: So you where are you currently based?
Eden: Myself personally?
Eden: I live in New York City.
Ryan: So how often do you travel versus what’s the daily life of Eden Full like?
Eden: So I’ve gotten SunSaluter to a point where I am still involved on a daily basis but it’s more of I oversee the vision and the general operations of SunSaluter but I’m not the one involved in the nitty gritty. I definitely realized early on that I’m not always the best at being detail oriented so this is where the amazing talented COO, our COO Jake Schual-Berke he’s fantastic at executing on ideas and really implementing and he’s a very detail oriented guy. Jake is the one that we’ll be in contact every day we’ll be talking strategy everyday but you know he’s the one actually ensures that it gets done. He’s the one connecting with new partners and learning to leverage those partnerships. So that I can focus more on strategy behind the scenes. Thinking about the technology and also thinking about other opportunities inside and outside of SunSaluter that you know we might be able to make a difference. I’m focusing on SunSaluter but I’m also beginning to branch out into other ideas, other technologies that I’d like to develop. That might also have the potential to impact the world. So still a work in progress but having a very supportive team makes all of this possible. Jake and I will usually travel cumulatively to India four or five times a year to ensure that everything is going according to plan but it’s definitely gotten to a point where because we have Guru and Krishnan our Indian partners who are there in India. We definitely don’t need to be making too many frequent trips and also it allows us to devote our time to some of the other partner countries that we want to start working in. We have a couple of partners that want to engage with us. For example in Malawi and we want to slowly be able to devote more time to that project as well.
Ryan: Okay, so going back to the crowdfunding camping that you mentioned at the beginning sort of, what’s the goal coming out of that CrowdFunding campaign and what are you guys… what’s your status right now? How’s it going?
Eden: So we are partnering with an organization called “The Skilled Samaritan Foundation” and so far we’ve already developed five solar microgrids and they charge devices lights, fans and phones for 12 homes in this village Khoiri. And basically this actually saves them four dollars a month because they no longer have to use Kerosene. Four dollars a month doesn’t sound like a big deal for us but for them it makes a huge difference. They’ve been really excited of all of the partners we’ve ever had, they’ve been the most engaged and really see the value of adding more electricity and having the 30% more electricity. So I think we’re really excited to be able to get more systems implemented in Khoiri. And so we are fundraising right now to get that done. Our fundraising goal is $5000 and so far we’ve raised about $1100 and the campaign’s only been going for a couple days so far. So we’re quite excited and definitely, this is our… it has the potential to be our biggest partner. I remember one of the team members that we’d been in contact with at Skilled Samaritan. They wrote us an e-mail and said “We really love SunSaluter, for all of our future deployments we are only going to exclusively put SunSaluter on our solar panels. We want a SunSaluter on every single panel in the future”. The Skilled Samaritan foundation they’ve been a social enterprise in India and they currently work in some villages near Delhi.
So they have the potential to have a lot of impact locally in India and they are run by a local team. This is exactly the kind of partnership that we’ve been wanting to build. We can focus on providing them support to implement the technology but their the one’s that are so excited by what we do, that they can go out there and implement it with us and alongside us while we provide support.
For every $150 that is raised will provide one more system to give light, the ability to charge phones and fans for a home of on average 7 people in a family. Every little bit counts. 150 dollars goes a long way for anyone that’s interested in contributing it would make a world of difference to people who used to use Kerosene but now have the potential to save a lot of money and help their children go to school and study better and have a better quality of life, so that they aren’t inhaling these toxic kerosene fumes.
Ryan: So also, I think I read that it’s a long term initiative. It’s setting up the basics so that they can continue after this crowdfunding campaign ends. Can you comment on that?
Eden: Exactly. Ya, so like I mentioned 100% of our donations are going towards of the purchase of these 100 Watt solar systems and these solar systems will last for many many years. And more than that it allows us to really prove out that we have this really established partnership with the Skilled Samaritan Foundation.
And they are going to continue to deploy SunSaluters in the villages that they work in near Delhi. What we want to do right now is get enough SunSaluters out there so that we really do reach a tipping point where people realize “Oh, SunSaluters definitely make a difference.” This 30% to 40% more electricity that people can get every single day, at every moment counts for a lot. Imagine being able to charge 30% more of your phone, of your fan, of your light than you could before. I think having a chance to use some of the funds from this fundraiser to prove out how SunSaluter and Skilled Samaritan can work together will allow us to really develop that partnership in the long term so that end users are excited by what we do.
Both of our organizations feel like we have confidence in this relationship, we have confidence in our ability to electrify this village. These donations will go a long way. You chipping in a few dollars here can have a lasting impact for up to 30 years, which is the anticipated lifespan or expected lifespan of a solar panel. So it can count for alot.
Ryan: Okay, So what what is keeping you busy? You mentioned other projects. What is keeping you busy these days?
Eden: I do spend a part of my time on SunSaluter. The other part is focused on skill development and you know I’m really excited about being able to build technologies that are increasingly complicated technically to solve some of the bigger problems. So, my goal is to get better at three key things that I feel like would make me a really good engineer. You know there’s mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and being able to program computer systems. So as you know I studied mechanical engineering in University and I’m a decent programmer and I’m becoming a decent electrical engineer. So it’s still a work in progress. But I think giving myself the time and the freedom to develop more skills is going to be very important as I want to develop other technologies that are really making a difference.
Ryan: So social entrepreneurship is very popular right now in universities and with Millennial’s. Is there any advice on skill development you could give 16-year-old Eden Full?
Eden: I think I would have told myself to even develop more technical skills earlier on. I think for a couple years I got very… I wouldn’t say distracted because it was very necessary but I got side tracked by business partnerships, operations, strategy in deploying and executing on SunSaluter, which took away from my ultimate goal which is to become a better maker, to become a better engineer. And I think it was necessary to get the SunSaluter out there but at the same time it meant that I was focusing less on technical skill development which means I have a lot of catching up to do now.
Ryan: Okay, so if any partners or other solar companies are out there. What does SunSaluter look for … are you guys doing micro-grids above a certain wattage? What is your bread-and-butter?
Eden: SunSaluter’s are most effective on and most economical when their deployed on solar panels that are at least 30 watts. So the bigger your solar panel the better because a SunSaluter will only provide more value and help you generate more electricity. So we are looking for partners, whether they are businesses or non-profits, social enterprises, individuals, whoever is using a solar panel larger than 30 watts and they are hoping to generate more electricity. The big important thing to emphasize though is that that 30% is going to make a real difference, its a very noticeable increase when it comes to energy generation. So we want to partner with individuals and organizations that really need that extra juice. So they can really appreciate what the SunSaluter provides. Certainly if any of your listeners are interested in collaborating with us on solar home system’s, micro-grids, small deployments, larger deployments. We’d love to talk and feel free to reach out to us.
Ryan: That’s fantastic, and so you also mentioned Malawi as being an expansion country where can we potentially see the SunSaluter coming in the next few years?
Eden: So SunSaluters have been deployed in 15 countries so far. I will list some of them, I’m not sure if I can recall all of them off the top of my head. India, Malawi, the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mexico, Morocco. These are all places that have had SunSaluters deployed. Oh Jamaica and so you know we’re very excited that partners in all of these different places have expressed an interest in our technology. And I think were at a point where we want to continue to build out partnerships with the right people who are seriously committed. So you know expect to see SunSaluters in any of the countries that I just mentioned and possibly… hopefully other countries that I haven’t mentioned.
Ryan: Okay, so you’re fairly young in your achieving lots of success was SunSaluter. What’s your life goal?
Eden: I want to build things that help solve society’s biggest problems. So whether that’s SunSaluter or another project that I’ll be working on in the future. Or even hopefully 20 or 30 projects that I’ll work on in my entire lifetime, making things and inventing things is kind of my passion and I want to continue developing skills that allow me to do that.
Ryan: So where did you meet your partner’s most of the time, is that through the Clinton Foundation, Skoll any other avenues?
Eden: I would say that the majority of our partners are people who reached out to us. After they heard about us through some sort of media. But we do definitely engage with a number of conferences and events that are around social enterprise. Sometimes we meet people via those avenues as well.
Ryan: Okay, so I have one more question and it’s kind of an oddball question. If Bill Clinton came over to dinner, what would you cook him?
Eden: Hmm, that’s a good question. It depends where he comes over for dinner. Is he coming over to one of our partners houses in India or he coming to my house in New York?
Ryan: Your house in New York…
Eden: Oh man, I don’t know. I personally do not cook but I really like Indian food so maybe we’ll get Indian food.
Ryan: Okay, so I think that about wraps up the episode and I like to thank you Eden Full and you can find more information on Fetterly.ca.
Eden: Thanks so much for you time Ryan.
End of Interview
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