National Post (Latest Edition)
No limits to what the future holds
Naila Moloo is not sure what she will be doing in 10 years — but what she has already managed to accomplish in her first 15 is impressive indeed.
Imagine a solar panel so transparent, flexible and small it can be built into your car’s windshield, or your smartphone’s screen so they can be powered by the sun. What if that same technology can be incorporated into your clothing so that your shoes change colour with your body temperature? That would be cool, too.
These are just a few of the applications of a technology being developed by Naila Moloo, a 15-year-old grade 10 student in Ottawa, best-selling author, and one of the youngest people ever to be recognized as a WXN Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 winner.
Moloo, who is an honouree in the Manulife Science and Technology category, started looking into energy for a school project when she was in grade five. The project piqued her curiosity and she started exploring innovations in the sustainability space. Since joining the The Knowledge Society (TKS), a global accelerator program for students between the ages of 13 and 17 in September 2020, she has been developing her own solution. “I realized solar panels are confined to roofs. What if we could build them so they can go on any surface?” That led her to the opportunities of combining solar and nano technologies.
“I started writing papers. I would go on Linkedin and reach out to people at the biggest nanotechnology solar companies in the world to see if I could have 20 minutes of their time to ask questions.” When she hit on her idea for transparent, flexible solar panels, she reached out again to ask, why wouldn’t this work? Everything she learned helped her iterate her idea. Now, along with her TKS mentor, she is preparing to move from ideation to an actual product. In January, they will be working in the MARS lab to start building. “It’s exciting. I’ll get to see if my idea actually works,” she says. “Best-case scenario, this is something I could turn into a startup and commercialize. I could adopt a B2B model where I sell the technology to companies such as Apple to use.”
This is just one of Moloo’s game-changing projects. Every Tuesday and Thursday
after school, she goes to Carleton University’s Barry Lab where, with the support of Denmark-based Pond Biomaterials, she is working to develop a better bioplastic. She turned her attention to plastic pollution in May and initially came up with an idea for using nano coils to break down microplastics in the ocean. She ran the potential solution by Ian Lockhart, a senior director at TKS and a mentor, who suggested she try to address the root cause of plastic pollution. Moloo began researching bioplastics that come from crops such as corn and sugarcane but realized they weren’t ideal because they cut into human consumption, use up land and not all are biodegradable. That’s when she decided to come up with a better bioplastic.
Again she reached out to the experts, in this case the CEOS of the top bioplastics companies in the world. Soon she began having regular calls with the CEO of Pond Biomaterials, Thomas Pederson. “I walked him through my thought process and started to look for another biomass that hadn’t been used before.”
She discovered duckweed, the smallest, fastest-growing aquatic species in the world. Pederson agreed it would be a good idea and brought Moloo on as a summer intern. She continues to have weekly calls with the company’s lead chemist and CTO and is working with a graduate student to build her bioplastic. “Pond just partnered with Adidas and pitched my idea to them and they liked it,” says Moloo. “If I can build it, hopefully they can incorporate my bioplastic into Adidas products. This is what I’m up to.”
Moloo credits her older sister Sophia, who just turned 17 and is working on her own projects, for inspiring her, and her parents for encouraging her to follow her curiosity. “They always tell me to pursue what I want to pursue, so long as it brings me joy and has an actual impact.”
Knowing that what she is doing can help bring positive change helps fuel Moloo’s confidence when reaching out to CEOS and others to help her test and act on her ideas. “Something may scare me but I think about the value that might come from stepping out of my comfort zone,” she says. That also means overcoming fear of failure.
“With my bioplastic, with my solar panel, failure is always a potential outcome. I would not be doing any of this if I was not okay with an outcome of failure.”
Moloo’s first lesson in failure came when she was 11 and has nothing to do with any of her STEM projects. An avid reader and writer, she decided she wanted to have the same type of impact her favourite authors had had on her. She queried 100 agents and publishing houses but her book was rejected. “It was disappointing, but I was
grateful, too.” Her next book, Chronicles of Illusions: The Blue Wild, was released in February 2021 by Pegasus Publishing when she was 14. It’s a bestseller and Moloo is working on the sequel.
When asked if she has a vision for herself, the 15-yearold responds simply: “I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in 10 years. I just know I want to make an impact. I want to play a role in ending our global consumption of fossil fuels within the climate crisis because we need solutions.”