Let There Be Sunlight: An Interview with Alice Min Soo Chun, Founder of Solight Design

Every invention is made through a process as winding as the life of the person who invented it. Look at the SolarPuff, a solar-powered portable light in a collapsible fabric case that, contrary to its name, inflates with a pull rather than a breath. The inventor, the architect Alice Min Soo Chun, was born in Korea and grew up in New York State. She acquired the skills to build the SolarPuff from childhood, but wasn’t inspired to invent it until she became a mother.

Chun’s mother taught her sewing and origami, the art of intricately folding paper into recognizable shapes. This stimulated a lifelong fascination with design, structure and shapes that led her to earn a Masters in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. When her 17-year-old son Quinn was diagnosed with asthma, Chun focused on using solar technology to provide affordable, clean indoor lighting for millions of families worldwide suffering from air pollution caused by addiction to kerosene lanterns.

There is an urgent need for clean lighting in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, around 3.8 million people, mostly women and young children, die each year from toxic kerosene fumes. Kerosene causes around 200,000 house fires every year in South Africa. Poor lighting is linked to an increase in assaults on women and children after natural disasters, while a 20% decrease in assault cases is linked to a light in tent camps under the same circumstances.

Because of her son’s asthma and tremendous needs, Chun began the experiments that resulted in the SolarPuff, which performed well during three years of field testing in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. In 2015, Chun launched a Kickstarter campaign to launch Solight Design. She has won numerous awards, including the US Patent Award for Humanity. Their solar lighting products have been exhibited at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

We asked Chun about her early life and how motherhood and career choices made her a pioneer in low-cost solar lighting.

Your mother taught you origami and sewing. Please share some memories of learning from your mother.

My mother was an artist and a textile manufacturer. My father was an architect and both of my parents loved music and art. Growing up I saw them doing everything from art to furniture. We were marginalized as the only Asian family living in an all-white neighborhood outside of Syracuse. There were many days when I would go home from school with a black eye or bruise because I was bullied. So I used my imagination to keep my lonely early years busy drawing and origami to pass the time.

Tell us how fighting your son’s asthma got you to think about the links between air pollution and respiratory health.

After the diagnosis, we spent countless hours in cramped and overcrowded doctor’s offices. I was shocked to find, after an extensive investigation into my son’s asthma, that one in four children in New York City has asthma. I began to wonder what kind of toxic environment would create this result for our children. I wanted to know how we could get on with this information and find a solution – a concerned mother does better research than the FBI. At that point, I decided to focus on solar energy as a material.

It became an obsession. I was determined to make a difference, but also to educate about how our dependence on fossil fuels is the noose around our necks. If each of us has contributed to the decline of the environment, then as individuals we all have the power to heal the environment. My research, my love for my son and his future, and the belief that small things matter and that a collective community of like-minded concerned citizens have the power to change the world. My education in Columbia inspired this trip. At the beginning the journey started with very few resources. It was a fight I took on. I felt like there was no choice but to use this light that I believe we all have. The light of our mind and heart. To delve deeper into the problem, I had to be creative with resources to design the prototypes using energy intelligence and decided to focus on the most powerful renewable energy source – the power of the sun. The sun is our muse for design, but my greatest inspiration comes from seeing the impact and light on people’s faces when they see our innovations. I could see no other way than to dedicate my profession to the future of my son, the future of his children and the future of the planet.

How is your son’s health now?

Quinn is 17 now and is fine as his lungs are much stronger and bigger, but he still suffers from extreme allergies and eczema that are becoming increasingly common in children. It’s all connected.

Was it the Haiti earthquake that motivated you to design the Solight?

Yes, I was already putting together solar panels and thin substrates for designing solar panels and LED lights before the Haiti earthquake. I had been working on small prototypes, but after the Haiti earthquake, I put more effort into making a solar light that was inspired by the origami balloon. It was compact and folded flat for shipping, while other solar lights were hard and heavy and bulky. For disaster relief, it was important to create something light and compact for travel and distribution in areas where there may be no roads or infrastructure.

Solights are $ 30 on the Solight website and around $ 25 on Amazon. Are solights affordable for the very poor people around the world who live on a few dollars a day?

On our website you can currently find the option “Give A Light” to buy a solar pouf, with which our NGO partners distribute the light they have bought to those most in need. There are different products with different sizes and functions, so there are different prices depending on the type.

Solight would be of tremendous help after a disaster, of course, but tell us about your vision to replace the routine use of kerosene for lighting with solar-powered light. How important is it for a family not to have any more solights from electric lighting after dark? What is possible for them that was not before?

With a small design idea, we have influenced over a million lives worldwide through our humanitarian efforts with our NGO partners. We have seen children reading at night refugees walking for miles and then receiving one of our lights or a phone charger, empowering them and helping them survive in extreme and dangerous circumstances. We even saw Syrian refugees use our lights for a wedding in a tent camp. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, we found 2.6 billion people without access to electricity. They use kerosene to light their world at night. Two million children die of bad air, and 200,000 house fires occur every year in South Africa alone. When there is a natural disaster and there is no light, we see women and girls attacked. Since we had lights in the tent camps, we saw a 20% decrease in the number of attacks the next day.

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