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Interview

From science fair to Thiel Fellowship: Eden Goh and SunSaluter

Eden Full Goh is a software/mechanical engineer interested in building products to solve society’s biggest problems. She is the inventor of the SunSaluter, a low-cost mechanism that optimizes solar panels while providing clean water for rural, off-grid communities in sixteen countries. Named one of the 30 under 30 in Forbes’ Energy & Industry three years in a row, one of the US Chamber of Commerce’s IP Champions, and Ashoka’s Youth Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Eden was a member of the Thiel Fellowship’s inaugural class. The SunSaluter has been honoured by the MIT Climate CoLab’s Grand Prize, the Westly Prize, Mashable/UN Foundation Startups for Social Good Challenge, and was awarded the runner-up prize at the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. She studied Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, and Robotics & Intelligent Systems at Princeton University. Proudly Canadian, she was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, but now lives in New York City.

Eden was selected to be the coxswain for the 2012 Rowing Canada Aviron senior women’s pre-Olympic development team, where they won a gold medal at Holland Beker and the Remenham Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta. In college, she was also a varsity coxswain and assistant coach for the Princeton University lightweight women’s rowing team. Eden is a member of the Autodesk Entrepreneur Impact Program.


Tell us about yourself and your journey from being a high school student interested in science and exploring the potential of solar energy to a Princeton University graduate in Mechanical Engineering and now, the founder of SunSaluter.

I've been really interested in solar energy and research for a really long time. I started working on science fair projects in the fifth grade. I remember my first project being a solar car. It was a desktop car that could go from one end of my desk to the other. I thought that this was just the coolest thing in the world, that all it needed was light and this light would be the energy needed to make things happen!  From that experience, solar energy became my passion and I continued to explore the possibilities of solar energy.  Every year for the next few years, I would continue to build a science fair project that was better than the last and a little more advanced and that was how I built my knowledge from knowing nothing about solar to being experienced with it. 

Eventually, my interest led me to an international science fair with my first rotating solar panel prototype which has now evolved into the SunSaluter, a solar panel tracker that rotates to the path of the sun, increasing solar panel efficiency 30% and providing up to 4 liters of filtered water per day.  It was at this science fair that I had a chance to meet someone who told me about her experience with solar energy and working in the developing world; noticing how communities had difficulties with energy accessibility and how my initial concept of a rotating solar panel might be a good solution to prototype and refine further into a marketable solution. 

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SunSaluter rotating solar panels maximize power generated by rotating throughout the day based on the position of the sun.

Her comments really influenced me to move forward and explore the possibilities.  Over the next year or so, I started researching energy accessibility in the developing world, learning how and if solar energy is used. As I entered into my studies at Princeton University, I decided to pilot my prototype. On a summer internship to Kenya, I had a chance to test my prototype concept for the first time: rotating a solar panel with the use of electricity.  I gained a lot of valuable feedback during that trip and it made me realize that if I wanted to invest in taking this prototype to market, I would have to work on it full-time. Working on it part-time really slowed down the iteration cycles. I wanted to take the project to the next level by building out a real organization with impact that could be sustained in the future.

Now that I have spent a few years working on SunSaluter full-time with support of the Thiel Fellowship, a program started by Peter Thiel, venture capitalist and entrepreneur, SunSaluter has grown into a business with staff and a Board of Directors.  This has enabled us to expand our impact to over 8,000 people in over sixteen countries. We are all really excited about continuing that growth moving forward. 

What inspired you to develop SunSaluter from a side project into a successful global solar non-profit?

Everyone has a side project. But for something to truly have impact, it needs to have scale, it needs to have systematization, it needs to have structure, and it's hard to do that when you're doing something part-time. The work requires travel and a lot of work in the field, face to face with our customers and partners to cultivate valued business relationships. We have to be there during the good times when we just deployed something and all is going well, and also for the difficulties when technical support is needed because a monkey broke a solar panel.  It is the little things like that that help you learn more about the customer, the user, and how you can refine your product to be more effective. It’s definitely a full-time job and my passion.

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SunSaluter grew from a science fair project to a global enterprise.

What’s your design process like? How are you using design thinking in your process to address the needs of your customer and facilitate a global enterprise? 

My design process is very user-centered. We've iterated on the SunSaluter at least sixty to seventy times by now and it's been really a journey.  I think it's important to always put your users first. There's no point in designing something in isolation and then deploying it to the world, saying “Ta-da, this is it!” It's definitely not it. I think we learned that lesson, multiple times the hard way. You go iterate with your users. You know they'll tell you “no, the tracker won't work here because you the ground is too soft," or that there needs to be anchors in the ground in case of strong wind or cows walking by, that the tracker needs to be safe from housing, children, and animals that are nearby. You have to design for all of these constraints – but most importantly, you need to define those constraints with your users.

What would you say is your strongest skill and how have you honed that skill over the years?

I think my strongest skill is resilience. Anyone can build the right knowledge and the right expertise to execute on something over time. But I know that it takes a certain amount of strength and it takes time to keep moving forward, motivation to continue even when you know all obstacles are against you and it seems like the path forward is just endless. For me, knowing that I have the support of my team has been really great for encouraging me to move forward, to know that I'm not just working for myself here, I'm working for our staff members, our Board of Directors, or advisors, and more importantly, all of the end users who are going to benefit from the work that we do.  There were many times where I felt like giving up, but I kept thinking to myself that giving up is not worth it and I had to remind myself that the impact that we're having is meaningful and it's worth it. 

How does the use of AutoCAD influence your designs and design process?

AutoCAD is a big part of our design process. Especially as we start to communicate more and more with manufacturers who are very used to seeing proper 3D renderings with detailed specifications; how long a support beam is, what angle the bracket has to be etc. These are all things that are easier to articulate when we use AutoCAD. No matter what language you speak or background you have, or manufacturing facility you use, with AutoCAD, you can provide plans and renderings that are universally accepted and understood. There are other CAD options out there, but we chose AutoCAD for that reason and we found it be extremely helpful for our team.

Can you share some examples of how SunSaluter has helped improve the lives of communities worldwide? 

SunSaluter is a solar powered tracker. It helps to rotate a solar panel to follow the sun so that it can generate thirty to forty percent more electricity, every single day, for whatever size solar panel you're using. So what does thirty to forty percent more electricity mean for people? It means that they're able to charge additional cell phones or charge lanterns for a longer than they ever had before. They no longer have to walk an hour into town in order to use a local charging station, because now they have a village community charging station that they can share, or maybe, depending on the individual or the family, they might even have their own system.  SunSaluter helps to work with partners that can help them finance and obtain systems that will really improve their quality of life.  It’s easy to take electricity for granted, but in some of these places it can be pitch black at night, the only light coming from the moon. No streetlights, just pure darkness. Every bit of electricity that you can charge and store counts so much to those communities.

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Access to electricity can be life-changing, giving people more hours in the day for education and other activities.

What advice would you share with emerging designers and students interested in design and entrepreneurship?

My advice to other students and designers it that you should find an area of expertise that interests you but may not have much attention that is being paid to it. Spend a lot of time in that field, learn, and become a specialist, but only if it's something that you're truly passionate about.  If you can prove to yourself that you are capable of solving a problem that is difficult and useful and applicable to the world, then that will give you the potential to learn and build upon those ideas in the future so you can continue to have impact. This takes time, and practice makes perfect. I certainly have not been successful at this very long compared to those who have been in the field for twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years, but I hope to get there some day. SunSaluter is one of my projects that I am committed to. I started SunSaluter ten years ago and it's something that care a lot about and now that I know a lot more about this field, I hope that I can continue to share my knowledge with others and continue to work towards something meaningful.