the gentlewoman

The Reader

The Canadian inventor of SunSaluter, Eden Full has opened up access to solar energy for off-grid communities in developing countries with an ingenious mechanism that has the potential to revolutionise how we generate and consume electricity. Eden’s low-cost solution actually cleans water while it works. Also currently studying mechanical engineering at Princeton University, she was the recipient of the inaugural Thiel Fellowship in 2011, winner of the 2012 Westly Prize, a finalist in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise 2014, and has appeared on the Forbes 30 under 30 list three years in a row. Oh yes, and did we mention Eden is 22? The Gentlewoman’s Richard O’Mahony spoke with the supremely organised wunderkind in Berlin.

Eden Full

Richard: I read that you’ve been fascinated with solar energy since you were 10-years-old.

Eden: People expect some beautiful, epic story behind how I came to invent the SunSaluter, but there isn’t one really. I went into a bookstore and saw this kit that taught you how to make your own solar-powered car. I begged my mother to buy me it, she did and it all started there.

R: What exactly is the SunSaluter?

E: It consists of water-powered solar panels that rotate to follow the sun. That way you get up to 40 per cent more electricity than with a stationary panel. In developing countries it’s very difficult to access electricity. So our objective is to help local entrepreneurs in places like India to use the SunSaluter technology to start their own for-profit organisations and create electricity to improve the quality of their lives.

R: Where does the name come from?

E: One of my friends who does a lot of yoga came up with the name. I don’t necessarily do that much yoga myself; I’m not even that much of a sun-worshipper because I spend most of my time indoors, working.

R: No real need for sunblock, then?

E: I’ll be honest, I don’t wear as much sunscreen as I should. Even when I do it’s probably only got an SPF of 15 or something.

R: Are there many of you in the company? Where do you all come from?

E: There are four people working on SunSaluter, split between the States and India. It’s funny, I tend to meet our American members at social entrepreneurship conferences such as SOCAP in San Francisco, but in India they tend to find us through reading about SunSaluter in The New York Times. Then, of course, we also rely on a network of local experts to connect us with the entrepreneurs we want to help.

R: It sounds like you’re great at building a team.

E: I’m extremely introverted actually. I’m not one to walk into some random conference and start chatting to people; that’s not my style. But if I’m interested in learning something, I’ll find out who the right people are to help me. For example, right now I’m really interested in electronic music…

R: Is that why you’re in Berlin?

E: Yeah. I found out the best people to talk to were in Berlin and sent them cold emails saying, “Can I buy you coffee? And we’re going to talk about music.”

R: That seems a far cry from solar energy.

E: I don’t limit myself to SunSaluter – I like to think I’m capable of building other cool things as well. For example, I’m a coxswain on a rowing team and a lot of rowers suffer from back or rib injuries from poor technique. I’ve come to suspect there might be ways of using sensors and wearable computing to alert rowers to their mistakes and prevent those injuries. I’m thinking about developing it for my senior thesis at Princeton.

R: Is Berlin a good city for entrepreneurs and inventors?

E: I really like it. I knew there was a great start-up scene here, but it’s really surpassed my expectations. People who are interested in the same things as me – social entrepreneurship, start-up innovation – come here from all over the world. A lot of great companies were started here, especially in the music scene, such as Ableton and Soundcloud. And there’s a lot of innovation going on here in solar. Recently, Germany became the first country to be powered 50 per cent by solar energy and that’s pretty incredible.

R: I gather electricity prices in Australia recently fell into “negative pricing” for the first time in living memory due to increased use of solar energy.

E: More and more countries are starting to take solar seriously. I think that we can get to a place where not only is electricity affordable and more efficient, but also something that people can access from pretty much anywhere.

R: That word "efficiency" seems to crop up a lot in relation to you and your work.

E: Yeah, it’s a bit of a personal obsession, particularly in my day-to-day living. I actually use a spreadsheet to keep track of everything from how many hours I sleep to what I eat. What did I accomplish today? How many hours did I work? I’m not so interested in the data itself, it’s more that I’m quite an emotional person and the act of answering simple “yes or no?” questions keeps me accountable and self-aware. It’s made me want to live a life where I can always answer, “Yes.” I don’t want to write anything negative on the spreadsheet so I’d better make this day really good.

R: Wow, that sounds incredibly disciplined. I’m a terrible procrastinator myself.

E: Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique? It’s based upon a 25-minute kitchen timer. It dictates that you work in 25-minute blocks and then you take a five-minute break. So I’ll set a timer for 25 minutes and I’ll work straight – no email, no Facebook, no Twitter. And it’s easier because I know that the five-minute break’s coming up and I can check my email then. I mean, I used to check it 30 times a day and now I’ve gotten it down to five or six times a day, which is still a lot in my opinion. But it's a gradual process of cutting down so that I’m not quitting cold turkey. As the stakes get higher with SunSaluter, it helps to create a sense of discipline, but I definitely have to build that.

Interview by Richard O'Mahony. Photograph courtesy of Eden Full. For efficiency-minded readers interested in trying out the Pomodoro Technique further information can be found at www.pomodorotechnique.com. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!