Listen to Your End Users for Affordable and Viable Impact

When do the most innovative ideas hit us? Isaac Newton discovered the Theory of Gravity when an apple fell on his head. Three centuries later, Albert Einstein formulated the Theory of Relativity after he fell off a chair. For problem-solvers, creativity and innovation flow comes to them at some of the most unsuspecting moments in life. Young entrepreneur and empowering people. Award (epAward) winner, Eden Full Goh had an epiphany at a school science project when she was just 10. She pursued her vision through high school, university and now supports 17,000 people across 19 countries with renewable energy technology SunSaluter. Read her interview for some inspiring tips on realizing your vision to serve a global community.

How did you come about creating SunSaluter?

Growing up in Alberta, Canada where oil is a large part of the economic culture, I became interested in renewable energy technologies when I was 10. I started work on SunSaluter as my high school science fair project. Initially, there was no direct financial support, but I continued my research into developing a low-cost solar panel rotating mechanism as an extracurricular activity when I was a student at Princeton University. In 2011, I received a Thiel Fellowship to focus on starting an organization to scale SunSaluter’s impact. This opportunity allowed me to take SunSaluter from an idea to something that was viable on a larger scale, and it allowed me to set up an organization.

A beneficiary of SunSaluter in India uses the technology for electricity and water filteration. (Photo credit: SunSaluter) 

Give a sense of the social impact that your innovation has created?

SunSaluter makes more sense in communities which are using less energy than most Western households and businesses.  The extra 30-40% power provided can make a huge difference for people who only use solar for a few lights, fans, pumps, or charging phones. This is one of the reasons why SunSaluter is focused on deployment in “developing” countries.  It fits better for agricultural communities who have daily tasks like collecting water or wood as the manual design requires resetting it once a day, so it can easily be incorporated into their lifestyle.  We also looked at places that may benefit from the water filtration aspect of the device.

The social impacts have been larger than we expected. Many use the extra light which can be provided by SunSaluter for studying, others use it to keep their families safe as it’s easier at night to spot wild animals. One user who was socially isolated because of the community’s caste system said now people respect him because he installed SunSaluter and had electricity. Others said they don’t have to spend extra time walking to a nearby village to charge their cellphones.

How easy or difficult is it for an American company like yours to operate in a developing region?

As a US non-profit organization, it has been challenging for a number of reasons. There are always many cultural differences no matter where you go.

Eden installing SunSaluter in rural Kenya. (Photo credit: SunSaluter)

We mitigated these by hiring local people and engaging with local volunteers who have a better sense of the culture and community. In India, one of our team members suggested moving our headquarters to the region he comes from, and that enabled a much greater uptake. Since he already had deep personal connections within the community, this made it much easier to build trust and relationships.

For teams working remotely, it is just hard to know all updates at all times, which creates communication challenges. We worked on this by being very intentional about our communications and tweaking them regularly based on needs.

Local Team of SunSaluter volunteers in India. (Photo credit: SunSaluter)

You have switched to an open-source-model. What are the benefits?

We have impacted thousands of people with SunSaluter, but we want to impact millions! As a small organization, we don’t have the energy or capacity to do that. We’ve already seen how easily people have copied the concept, so it made sense to make it open source so others can improve on it for themselves and their communities, and become experts! The benefit is reaching more people so they can have improved quality of life and the environment overall benefits from more solar power.

How did you come across epAward? What kind of support have you received after winning the award?

We have been grateful to have the support of a number of organizations and networks specializing in the energy and social impact sectors. This is how we learned about epAward. Siemens Stiftung and empowering people. Network have provided us with exposure to other fantastic social enterprises and organizations. We have also received personal training at workshops and events for our team members.

The journey of young social entrepreneurs is often on a rocky road. Your survival/ motivation tips for start-ups:

  • Listen to your end users. We made over 60-70 design iterations until we came to a design that was affordable and sustainable for communities.

Eden receiving empowering people. Award 2013 from Siemens Stiftung Managing Directors Rolf Huber & Nathalie von Siemens. (Photo credit: epNetwork) 

  • Make things as simple as possible for you and the users. So that the beneficiaries can install and use the device with their limitted resources and without many hiccups.
  • Be strategic about the kinds of advice you follow. Many of our advisors tried to recommend that SunSaluter should incorporate as a for-profit company. We felt that trying to create a profitable manufacturing business would be too much of a distraction from our core social mission.

Eden Full Goh is a software and mechanical engineer interested in building products to solve society’s biggest problems. Her invention SunSaluter is a low-cost mechanism that optimizes solar panels while providing clean water for rural, off-grid communities. She studied Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science and Robotics & Intelligent Systems at Princeton University. She was born and raised in Calgary, but now lives in New York City. She won the epAward in 2013.

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