Pure Genius

The 19-year-old innovator revolutionizing solar energy systems

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Armed with a $100,000 fellowship, a Princeton sophomore is taking a break from college to perfect her first invention -- and continue her innovations.

PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel last month announced he was awarding 24 innovators -- all under the age of 20 -- $100,000 each to pursue their projects. The inaugural class of Thiel Fellows includes a 19-year-old fourth year Ph.D. candidate, a self-taught programmer and a 17-year-old who wants to extend the human lifespan.

Eden Full, a 19-year-old Thiel fellow and Princeton University student, created a solar panel rotating system called the SunSaluter. The device uses bimetallic strips, which are also found in thermostats, to sense temperature changes and adjust the solar panel's angle to optimize energy collection throughout the day. We spoke last week about how Full's innovation came to be -- and what the fellowship means for her future.

How did Roseicollis Technologies get started and what does it do?

Roseicollis Technologies started as a project I did in high school. I've been tinkering with science fair projects for quite awhile and I always knew I had an interest in renewable technology and renewable energy. As I started doing more science fair projects, I realized it wasn't enough. I wanted to find meaning in what I was doing. I wanted to develop a technology that would have an impact. I started to realize that if I wanted to do that I'd have to deploy the technology and work with other people to ensure that the work I'm doing is relevant and feasible to be deployed in the real world.

Roseicollis Technologies started as just me developing my rotating solar panel tracking system. It rotates the solar panel to optimize energy collection by up to 40 percent. It's called the SunSaluter. It costs about $20 to make. I had the opportunity to deploy one of the prototypes last summer in Kenya. I had a chance to visit two villages of about 1,000 people. They had never had electricity before, but they were familiar with how everything worked. They just hadn't had the opportunity to have one of these systems. I spent about three weeks working with local villagers and leaders to establish a system where they would have a solar panel charging station. It would have one of the SunSaluters connected to the solar panel, so it could track the sun.

This was a good opportunity for me to introduce the benefits of technology to someone who's never experienced it before. It also gave me a chance to understand [what it's going to take to develop] a technology for people of all different backgrounds. How am I going to go about doing this? For one of my Thiel Fellowship application essays, I wrote about how I believe technology -- a truly successful and disruptive technology -- is one that can be deployed in a variety of areas. It can be relevant to emerging markets and established markets. It has to be easy to understand. As a high school student designing this technology, and being a college freshman and sophomore, I have a unique perspective that engineers in the field for 20 years don't have.

What does it mean for the people in Kenya to have this device?

They've never had electricity. They've relied on making candles and going into town to charge their cell phones. When I brought the solar panels to the village, the children crowded around. They asked questions. Now, they get to charge their own batteries. They have lanterns they can call their own.

I worked with them to pay off the solar panel. Since they had a partnership with a local biological research center, they would have part of their salary deducted from their work at the center nearby. It was an easier way to manage a makeshift micro-finance model. It worked well. It gave them ownership of the technology.

The second week I was there, one of the women was killed trying to collect fire wood in the dark. She was trampled by a buffalo. That sort of thing shouldn't happen. It should never happen to anyone, especially to a village and community where everyone is so close. [Now] that technology that I've been tinkering around on in my basement can mean something. It can change someone's life.

What motivated you to begin this work as a high school student?

It spoke to me. When I was younger, my dad would bring home pictures of people building things, robots, space shuttles. My dad did this for other careers too. He tried to encourage me to do anything I wanted to do. What spoke to me was engineering. I was interested by the idea of getting to build something with my own bare hands and then getting other people to see how awesome it is.

In fifth grade, I was building a solar car for a science fair project. It's almost like magic. If you put a solar car out in the sun, it's going to go. I was really fascinated by how that worked. It motivated me to keep tinkering with different things. I was pretty ambitious as a kid. A lot of my peers thought I was nerdy. I was proud that I was interested in this and I hoped one day it would matter. To have it all come to fruition now is really meaningful for me.

What are your plans since winning the fellowship?

I'm going to relocate to San Francisco. I'm going to hopefully have access to a machine shop, a woodworking shop of some sort, and I'll develop a final prototype. I'll start talking to different mentors. The advantage of the fellowship is that we have access to all these different people who are part of companies that Peter Thiel has funded in the past. This network is really tremendous. It's a great opportunity for me to see what it will take in the real world to succeed with something like this.

I can't guarantee that the SunSaluter is my one big idea that's going to change the world. It probably won't be. I am only 19. But I think this is my start to figuring out how to do something to change the world. It's going to take time and making mistakes. It's all part of something new and meaningful and different that I won't be able to find by staying in college. That's why I'm going to take two years off from Princeton to figure out how I want to do this. I do have every intention of returning to Princeton.

Photo: Eden Full in Kenya with the SunSaluter

Coming Thursday: An interview with David Luan, the Thiel fellow who "plans to do for consumer robotics what the IBM PC did for computing"

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure