SunSaluter is a simple idea with a big pay-off. The harder part is getting it to those who need it.

By rotating solar panels with the movement of the sun, the device can improve electricity generation by up to 40%. All that's really involved is a bamboo stand to hold the panel, and a few plastic bottles.

"A lot of it depends on the eagerness of customers," says 21-year-old inventor Eden Full. "Our core focus is now on India."

2014-01-08

A Young Clean-Tech Entrepreneur Learns Even Simple Design Ideas Face Challenges

Once in the spotlight for "dropping out" of college under the tutelage of billionaire Peter Thiel, Eden Full, 21, is now a junior at Princeton University who is still busy refining her big idea for end users.

Eden Full's SunSaluter is a simple idea with a big pay-off. By rotating solar panels with the movement of the sun, the device can improve electricity generation by up to 40%, according to its 21-year-old inventor. All that's really involved is a bamboo stand to hold the panel, and a few plastic bottles. As water drains out during the day, the panel starts to tilt.

The harder part is getting SunSaluter to the people who need it—off-grid villagers in developing countries—and making sure it works properly in their setting. And that's something that Full, currently a junior at Princeton University, is still working out. Like many simple design and technology ideas, it's the practicalities that remain challenging.

"The original design didn't consider the needs of the end-user, which isn't surprising as I was in high school at the time," Full says. "It was too complicated, technical, and difficult to fix."

Over the last year, Full has sent 35 units to six countries, working with "beta" customers. The design, which costs $50, now uses local materials and is simpler to set up and maintain. She's now concentrating on India and Malawi, in southeast Africa, where partners have shown greatest willingness to test the product.

"A lot of it depends on the eagerness of customers," she says. "Our core focus is now on India. That's where we have most of our resources and where we've established connections with people who want to work with us and move quickly." In the first half of 2014, Full hopes to deliver up 100 units, collaborating with up to 10 local groups.

Two years ago, Full received a lot of media coverage, both for her idea and for the fact that she left her college plans aside to join Peter Thiel's anti-college fellowship program. Several stories talked about her "dropping out" to pursue the SunSaluter idea.

But Full says that was never the case. She only ever planned to take a year two years out and she resists the idea of being a poster-child for the college-is-dead movement. She thinks she can learn a lot of Princeton, and, in fact, a year on the Thiel program has showed her how much she has to learn. It should all be useful as she looks to roll SunSaluter more widely in 2014.

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