Turning Playtime into Power
Jessica O. Matthews believes that ignorance really can be bliss, especially when it comes to launching a start-up. "It's incredibly easy to think outside the box when you have no idea what the parameters of the box are," she says.
Matthews is CEO and co-founder of Uncharted Play, a New York City-based start-up that invented the Soccket, a soccer ball that generates and stores energy as it's kicked. About 30 minutes of play can power the LED lamp that comes with the Soccket for three hours. Since it was founded in May 2011, Uncharted Play has distributed about 10,000 Soccket balls in the United States, Mexico, and parts of Africa. A for-profit venture, Uncharted Play partners with corporate sponsors like Western Union and State Farm, which pay to distribute the balls as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. Last year, the company generated about $2 million in revenue.
Today, things are rolling (pun intended) along smoothly for Uncharted Play, but Matthews says the company might never have come to be if she had listened to the so-called "experts" in her field. Matthews and her co-founder, Julia Silverman, originally developed the Soccket for a class project at Harvard. It was inspired, in part, by Matthews' recent trip to visit family in Nigeria. During the trip, the power at her cousins' home repeatedly went out, due to the shoddy electrical infrastructure that is pervasive in the developing world. Making matters worse was the fact that in the absence of electricity, Matthews' family, like so many other African families, relied on kerosene, a fuel source that's a known health, fire, and environmental hazard. The confluence of problems gave Matthews an idea: what if people in the developing world could generate their own energy through an everyday activity like, for instance, playing soccer? "We put a shake-to-charge flashlight inside a hamster ball, rolled it around, and said, 'Yeah this should work,'" Matthews says.
The engineering community begged to differ. Over and over Matthews and her team were told that there was no way to build a ball that would be light enough to kick and capable of generating substantial energy. So Matthews, a psychology major, taught herself the basics of soldering, building circuitry boards, and whatever else it would take to bring the idea to fruition. This, Matthews says, is where ignorance became an advantage. "Because we didn't know any better, we never had to worry about what might stop us," Matthews says. "If we had taken the time to research the whole process, we would have seen all the issues and obstacles in our way and might have scared ourselves away from it."
Matthews and her seven employees, are now at work on additional products, including a Soccket that can charge a mobile phone, a power-generating football, and a product for the developed world called the Ludo. Also a soccer ball, the Ludo will have an internal tracking device that monitors how much people play with it. The more they play, the more points they earn. They can then go online and donate those points to charitable projects, which are funded by Uncharted Play's corporate sponsors.
Uncharted Play has been widely recognized in the field of social entrepreneurship. Matthews has spoken on a Clinton Global Initiative panel about designing for humanity, moderated by President Bill Clinton, himself. Last year, Matthews and Silverman were both named Harvard's Scientists of the Year. Still, owning the title of "social entrepreneur" doesn't come easy for Matthews. "I'm not very comfortable with that phrase, because to me, it's just entrepreneurship," she says. "Yes, the people I help are less fortunate than I am, but to me, building a sustainable business is always about finding some need and filling it."