How 16-year-old Naila Moloo is making waves as an environmental innovator

Ottawa teen Naila Moloo is developing a newer, sleeker solar panel and a plant-based plastic

Mathew Silver
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Photograph by John Kealey

When Naila Moloo delivered a TEDx Talk on climate-saving tech last February, the inventions she name-checked were her own. The first was a wee, flexible solar panel; the second, a bioplastic made from duckweed, an aquatic plant. Moloo also discussed the butterfly effect, which posits that the faintest flap of the tiny creature’s wings could cause a tornado halfway around the world. 

It’s a fitting metaphor for Moloo herself, who, at 16, is already making waves as an environmental innovator. Her body of work—which, along with the plastic and the solar panel, includes two fantasy novels—recently earned her a spot on the Women’s Executive Network’s list of Canada’s Most Powerful Women and, last April, a Woman of the Year honour from the DMZ, a business incubator at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Growing up in Ottawa, Moloo was—shocker—a walking straight-A. “In Grade 5, while working on a project about geothermal energy, I was horrified by fossil-fuel statistics,” says Moloo. “That planted the seed for me to find my own solutions.” Three years later, Moloo competed in the Canada-Wide Science Fair with a project aimed at reducing teen mobile usage: a cautionary digital wallpaper for cellphones. (Its message: “Get off your phone.”) Moloo didn’t advance to the finals, but her work caught the attention of the Knowledge Society, or TKS, a 10-month after-school program that runs next-gen Canadian geniuses through a rigorous academic boot camp. Moloo received a full scholarship.

Moloo dreamed up her solar cell and duckweed concepts while navigating TKS’s heavy-duty course load. Where most solar panels are quite clunky, Moloo’s portable prototype is small enough to fit on an iPhone. As for the bioplastic, Moloo decided on duckweed, which is relatively cheap to harvest and can double its biomass every 24 hours. In May of 2021, she successfully pitched the premise to Denmark-based bioplastics company Pond Biomaterials, whose corporate partners include Adidas. Now, she spends her days off school developing her material remotely, in a lab at Carleton University. 

During her other off-hours, Moloo plays basketball and preps for her SATs. (No doubt she’ll have her pick of schools.) Still, her growing suite of inventions is always top of mind. “One day, climate change will be the problem of today’s youth to solve,” she says. As ever, Moloo has a head start. 

This article appears in print in the January 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.