"I hate camping," says Krystal Persaud, "like, a lot."
When she shares prototypes of her solar-powered phone charger for feedback, she often gets suggestions—often from men—to make it portable enough to throw in a backpack for camping. The former senior director of the product design team at littleBits isn't interested in that advice. "You might go camping once a year; you live in your apartment every day. And I don't want to hang some Velcro camouflage solar panel in my window," she says.
Soon, she won't have to. Today she's launching a Kickstarter campaign to manufacture the Grouphug Window Solar Charger. Instead of creating a solar-powered phone charger for rugged outdoorsmen, she's designed one for stylish apartment dwellers. She hopes it can be a "Trojan horse" to help normalize environmentally friendly choices for consumers who might not have thought of themselves as eco-conscious before—and that the daily recharge will inspire her backers to take bigger steps toward environmentalism.
From littleBits intern to employee three to design director
After graduating from Georgia Tech's industrial design program, Persaud had trouble finding a job. "I had this intense philosophy about designing sustainable products that should be educational. I couldn't imagine working anywhere where I would have to change my philosophy." Eventually, she connected with Ayah Bdeir, the CEO of littleBits, who was just starting to build out a team for her open-source electronic toy company.
Persaud joined on a six-month design internship. She ended up staying for more than six years, rising through the ranks as a product manager and product designer before becoming the senior director of product design and strategy, running weekly user testing workshops and launching big products with Disney and Lucasfilm and Marvel.
Persaud gained a huge appreciation for user testing at littleBits. "As the director, it was hard for me to answer a lot of questions about what a child would want—I'm not an eight-year-old, so what I like doesn't matter." Her team brought in representative groups of kids to test out the toys and gain insights directly from them. Their responses—good and bad—helped shape the products. "Kids would cry," she says. "Imagine if we didn't do that, and we shipped hundreds of thousands of those [test sets] out."
Try this at home
Persaud knew she wanted to start her own company one day, but it was hard to leave littleBits. And she knew she wanted to create an environmentally friendly product, but she wasn't sure what. She quit her job and started spending a lot of time tinkering with green tech, applying the same human-first approach that she'd honed at littleBits.
"I asked people about sustainable habits, and what they would be interested in doing. Composting and gardening came up a lot, but solar did too, often as a question, like, 'I know that I should go solar, but I don't own a house. How would I possibly do that?' I thought that was interesting. You only don't know how to do it because there's not a solution for you, but there easily could be."
Or, at least, she thought it would be easy. She soon came up against the complexities of solar energy. "The first five panels I made shattered—if you drop the thin silicon wafers like an inch, they break. And I started off with a six-watt panel, which is not enough for phones. My battery was wrong; it was taking too long to charge, and it couldn't fully charge my phone.
"I also started talking to people who work at solar panel companies, asking them really basic questions like, 'Why are solar panels rectangles? Why are they blue? Why are they always big? Can solar panels be in fun shapes?' And they were like, 'They can, but why would you do that?' I learned it was just about manufacturing efficiency and costs. When the engineer said that you could have a solar panel in any shape and no one was doing that, it felt huge."
She learned that she could make shapes that are more whimsical—and created a custom cat-shaped solar panel for an exhibition at the New York Hall of Science. She learned that monocrystalline cells from a company called SunPower are more durable, energy-efficient, and long-lasting than the cheaper polycrystalline cells she had been shattering before. "They developed a patented system that layers in a copper netting that goes on the back so that they literally can't break," she says. "They would bend a little, but would still work."
Her final product uses those panels—rated to last 25 years and with best-in-market efficiency of 22 percent—and takes 10 hours of direct sunlight to gather enough energy to charge a phone. Because the panels are so long-lasting, Persaud worked on a modular design that could be repaired every few years when the battery needs a refresh.
Rethinking green branding
"I think if you saw me on the street, you wouldn't assume that I was an 'eco person,'" Persaud says. "I am, but I also value convenience and fashion and home decor. I'm not willing to compromise on those things to be sustainable, as awful as that sounds. And I think a lot of people are like that."
As she's prepared for the release of her solar chargers, she's been thinking about challenging the aesthetics typically tied to environmentalism as a way of reaching a wider audience.
"Historically, designers have thought that consumers need to see, like, a leaf in your logo, the product needs to be green, the whole thing needs to look recycled," she says. "I think it really limits the adoption rate and popularity of products, because it's this clunky aesthetic that not everyone is interested in. It's not a good way to break out of the niche."
She identifies more with brands like Everlane and Allbirds, "which are doing sustainable things that look like mainstream, beautiful designer goods. I want to basically do a Trojan horse eco-product that you want no matter what, and it just happens to be good for the environment.
"I'm tired of the SkyMall look," she adds. "A lot of the reason why I think that this has been such an untapped area is because a similar demographic of people—guys—have been designing solar panels, and these companies are obviously not talking to people."
Her approach is more playful. She developed a "suncatcher" model with plastic prisms that spray rainbows into a room, thinking it would be Instagram-friendly, but found the effect was too inconsistent from window to window. She tested out a variety of styles and landed on a bamboo frame that testers liked because it fit in best with many styles of home decor; she started selling prototypes last holiday season to validate the market for it.
"You don't have to overturn capitalism to be sustainable," she says. "Just fuel it with environmental stuff that people want."