Naila Moloo – 2023 Emerging Leader Award Recipient

Date: Monday April 3, 2023

Naila Moloo stands in front of photography equipmentPhotography by Blair Gable

Naila Moloo: “If that can be scaled up, that would be everything I’m hoping for. I’d drop everything to do that.”

Moloo is an inventor, researcher, innovator, communicator and change agent; she is also a Grade 11 student in Ottawa

Naila Moloo chuckles when she thinks about her first research project aimed at helping to save the planet. It was back when she first enrolled in TKS, short for The Knowledge Society, a STEM-oriented “innovation accelerator” for smart, ambitious high-school students. She’d been interested in climate change and alternative energy sources since she did a unit on renewable energy in Grade 5. At TKS, she became fascinated with nuclear fusion.  

“I spent a good four months delving deep into fusion. It was really fun,” she says. “Fusion is such a game changer.” The program helped her set up mentoring calls with scientists at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a U.S. startup, and she ultimately wrote a paper on an idea for a photon fusion-propelled rocket, a spaceship that would reduce energy consumption by using fusion paired with solar sails. 

Also see: Naila Moloo: A formidable champion for the planet

She pauses as she talks about it now. It all sounds a bit far-fetched now, a bit dreamy, perhaps. “It was a very long time ago,” she laughs. It was Grade 9 after all and she’s in Grade 11 now. When you are 17, two years is “a long time ago.” 

But Moloo has also packed an awful lot into the last two years. In addition to being a student at Elmwood School in Ottawa, she’s working on two projects that had their genesis in the TKS program — a plastic-free flexible solar panel and a process to create bioplastics out of duckweed; found in ponds and marshes, it is the world’s fast-growing plant.  

She’s also an inexhaustible and gifted communicator intent on spreading the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) gospel and inspiring other young people. She’s active on social media, particularly LinkedIn, but she’s also got a website, a newsletter and a podcast. She co-hosts the Curiosity podcast with fellow TKS student Kristina Arezina, where they talk to tech executives, start-up founders and venture capitalists about everything from hard science to overcoming challenges to what they were like in high school. She’s even written two novels — fantasy tales about the adventures of two young sisters, although that was in middle school and she’s had to give up writing fiction.  

She’s now revved up about working with the Light and Hope Initiative, a charity based in Kenya that delivers educational and mentorship programs to underprivileged young people. She’s won a passel of awards and been named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network. She’s even got her picture on a candy bar wrapper, part of Hershey’s Her for She campaign highlighting accomplished young women for International Women’s Day. 

It makes for busy days, which start every morning at 7:17 a.m., precisely, and that’s not some random time. “It’s the perfect time. It lets me sleep as long as possible, and still let the dog out and get ready to be out the door at 7:45 without being frazzled. It’s been trial and error, but we wound up at 7:17.”  

She’s on the school badminton and volleyball teams, and often has practise before and/or after school, so she typically dedicates her study hall period to one of her many pursuits. “I’ll be writing Curiosity podcast questions, or planning a workshop, or analyzing test results from a lab,” she says. In grades 9 and 10, she snuck in some of that during class. “I can’t really do that as much now,” she says. “The material is a little more difficult so I actually have to pay attention in all my classes.” After school, she’s often in the lab before heading home to do her homework, and then spends more time on her various pursuits before knocking off, every day, at 9:30 p.m. She does allow herself a little Netflix at that point.  

Just as remarkable as her curiosity and her capacity for work is her eagerness to push herself into a technology world that she doesn’t seem to find intimidating at all. Her solar panel project was rooted in an idea she first had in Grade 9 that making solar cells flexible and transparent meant they could go anywhere — on windows and car windshields, even your cellphone screen. After months of research, she needed to get into a lab to actually build something.  

“Ottawa doesn’t have many solar labs and, realistically, I’m 15 at the time; I’m not going to live alone somewhere in the U.S. to work.” So, she began contacting professors in Toronto and Montreal — “cold outreach,” it’s called. She wound up working the summer after Grade 9 at Toronto Metropolitan University and staying with her grandparents.  

She took the same approach with the bioplastics project. That idea was inspired by research she was doing back in Grade 9 — it’s fair to say it was the formative year of her life so far. Bioplastics are an established technology, but they come mostly from corn, sugar cane and potatoes. “Those are crops that humans need to eat,” she says. “Also, if we were growing corn to the extent that we needed to grow it, then we’d be cutting down rainforests. So, it’s not very sustainable.”  

After first looking at algae as an alternative, she came across duckweed. By then, she’d already been reaching out to experts and academics. Thomas Pedersen, the CEO of Pond Biomaterials in Denmark, became a mentor, and soon she was on weekly calls with their CTO and lead chemist. This academic year she’s spent a lot of time after school and during holidays working on the project at a biochemistry lab at Carleton University.  

And not always succeeding, it should be said.  

Both projects have had their bumps. With the solar cell, she had first wanted to make it transparent using a bendable glass called willow glass. But she’s had to give up on that idea and is now focussed on making them flexible but plastic-free. Duckweed has been even more frustrating. The starches in the plant need to be converted to glucose that can then be fermented into lactic acid, which is then converted into polylactide bioplastic. For a long time, she wasn’t getting enough glucose out of the process. “The glucose state was just hellish,” she says. “There was just so much failure. I never encountered that much failure in my life before, and it was not what I was expecting.”  

Despite the bumps, Moloo is keeping at it. She’s got the glucose thing working now and has had promising early results converting it to lactic acid. If she can get proof of concept of the idea nailed down, she will likely head to Denmark to spend a chunk of the summer working at Pond Biomaterials, and maybe even work on some real-world applications. “That would obviously be kind of a dream.” If the solar panel proves more promising, she may switch gears, but either way she plans to keep going on both projects for now.   

After high school, she may take a gap year to work with Pond Biomaterials on bioplastics. “If that can be scaled up, that would be everything I’m hoping for. I’d drop everything to do that.” Then after university — probably an engineering degree — she’ll see where science takes her, though working for or building her own start-up is very much on her mind.  

Though she will never do just one thing, of course. She’s determined to keep up with the Light and Hope Initiative. She’s running online workshops for the students in Kenya — the latest was an “idea sprint” on hunger in rural India — and planning a speakers series. She concedes she might need to drop something at some point, but she doesn’t relish the thought, and she loves the idea of combining scientific research with communications and inspiring others. Like the podcast, for example: “I’m sure I won’t do it forever, but I really enjoy it. Having conversations with people, I just really like that. There’s so much to learn.”  

Profile by Mark Stevenson

YouTube player

2023 Honourees:

Harold Calla | John Risley | Lisa Raitt | Stephanie Nolen | Janice Stein | Laurent Duvernay-Tardif