We had the pleasure of interviewing Alice Min Soo Chun, the hugely inspiring CEO of Solight Design we talk about spreading love and light.
Please can you tell me a bit about you, your co-founder and team?
I am the CEO of Solight Design and have been a Professor of Architecture and material technology at Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and Parsons the New School for Design. But most importantly, I’m a mother of a twelve year old boy.
My Co-Founder Stacy Kelly is a cereal entrepreneur with experience in publishing and business development. We both live in NYC.
How did the journey to create Solight Design begin?
I realized the need for alternative solutions to harness energy after the birth of my son, who had severe asthma. The number of children with asthma has been increasing so rapidly, in NYC alone; 1 out of 4 children have asthma which is 40% higher than the rest of the country. The research shows pollution to be the underlying cause. As a species, the human gene pool should not be changing this soon, the reason has to be the environment. With the knowledge that solar energy is the most efficient source of renewable energy, I did research then focused on innovations in harvesting solar energy.
While a professor at Columbia University I received a grant to develop this research and started experimenting with photo-voltaics and thin film substrates. At Columbia University in 2010, in response to the devastating Haiti earthquake, as Professor I turned my class into an innovation studio to research and design solutions to help Haiti. I rightly pointed out to my class that Haiti was really a microcosm of the rest of the world, the country. Haiti was and still is only 12% electrified. Most of the population was living on 3 dollars a day, and a quarter of humanity was spending what little money they had on deadly kerosene to light their world at night. It was in my lab that the SolarPuff™ and the inflatable solar light were invented. Early prototypes were more like an inflatable pillow with a mouth nozzle to inflate, but I realized this was a dangerous detail for regions of poverty and for emergency response, due to lack of sanitation, and the eminent risk of Cholera and Ebola spreading. I continued improving the design by eliminating the need for a mouth nozzle by using a folded method and finding the perfect material, similar to sail cloth, that was engineered for strength yet soft enough to fold flat.
What is the Solar Puff, how does it work, where can it be used & what are the benefits?
Solight’s first product called the SolarPuff™, is the ideal solution for providing clean and affordable lighting to those living off the electrical grid as well as for the ecofriendly conscious in the First World. The beauty and elegance of this lantern has touted accolades from MoMA, Modern Museum of Art, the New York Times, and most recently the 2017 German Design Award for Lighting. Arguably the SolarPuff™ is the safest and most hygienic lantern available.
SolarPuff™ is a patented flat-pack solar light with an adaptable, lightweight, and self-inflating design that emits zero carbon. The origami inspired design allows for the quick pop-open function, resulting in a magic unfolding cube of light. There is no need to use your mouth to inflate, since the simple pull of the handles allows air to fill the expandable bladder in 2 seconds. Its Lithium-ion Polymer battery is recharged with a thin solar panel, so there is no need for batteries. It charges in approximately 8 hours, giving light that lasts for 8 to 12 hours. The SolarPuff™ is only 2.3 oz. and flat packs to 0.25 in so there is major cost savings in shipping. You can fit 120 in a box vs 8 in a box of conventional bulky hard plastic lanterns. It is the perfect solution for emergency relief and refugees in plight, where the most important things are food, water, and light.
How long did it take to perfect the design?
It took about two years to perfect the design, the most difficult part was finding the right manufacturer and working with them to get the details right. It took several months to find the right material for the expandable bladder, which is this sail cloth that is made in the USA, I had to find a material that would be soft enough to fold flat but strong enough to hold its form of the cube. This material is engineered for extreme weather so it is extremely durable.
What products have you developed/are you developing?
Some new products that we are working on are units that also charge phones. It is really a necessity in developing regions.
Where can you buy them?
We are on Amazon, and Uncommon goods, we also sell at MoMA Design store as well as Wholefoods, almost every museum store carries our lights and we distribute in 25 different countries.
Who have you worked with and been advised by to ensure the lights have the maximum impact in difficult environments?
I have had many advisors, engineers, designers, and our customers affect the design. We are always wanting to improve and tweak the design of our products and we care about what our customers care about.
Who is using them, where are they being used and what impact are they having?
In the US and Europe, people use them for camping and gardens, children love them for nightlights, but in developing regions where there is no electric grid, they use the lights as a necessity. Women and children in the Syrian refugee tent camps are using them every night for just seeing things, women use them to protect themselves from assault, children sometimes use them as soccer balls in the tent camps. Many children are in shock after they lost their family from the Syrian war, they use the lights to keep from being frightened and many times the light is what brings them a sense of comfort and joy.
We’re very inspired by your quest to create clean sustainable lighting for those that need it most. We lived off grid for several months when we were volunteering in Europe, the Solar Puff or Solar Helix would have been very useful when walking back to our tents through dark forests by the light of the moon!
Which groups have been most excited about the designs you’ve made? How can people and businesses donate and help get the lights to where they’re needed most around the world?
We have a sister NON-Profit called Studio Unite and they have partnered with an international volunteer organization that deliver our lights to the Syrian refugee camps, to Nepal, to the orphanages and schools in Haiti. Everytime someone buys one of our lights, we donate a percentage of our profits to our NON-profit, so that they can deliver our lights to those that need it most.
We started giving programs in Senegal, South Africa, Haiti, Nepal, Ghana, to name a few, most of these give programs are for children so they can study at night and be safe when traveling far to school, many times they must get up before the sun comes up to walk to school.
What are your goals for Solight Design this year?
Our main mission is to share our story so everyone can participate and empower themselves to create change. We have impacted over 120,000 lives in developing regions and and everyone who uses a Solarpuff light at night can save money on electricity as well as lower their carbon footprint. If everyone started to participate, we would collectively save millions of dollars on energy consumption and millions of tons of carbon emissions, each year, one light at a time.
Thanks so much to Dr Alice Chun for appearing on our blog! We look forward to seeing the love and light spreading around the world.
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Thanks for reading!
Vix & Lou