Jessica O. Matthews recalls that at her aunt's wedding in Lagos, Nigeria, the power suddenly went out. "They brought in a diesel generator to keep the festivities going," says Matthews, who grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, but has dual citizenship. "I was 17 and it was by no means my first time in Nigeria, but for some odd reason, I was particularly bothered by the fumes coming from the generator. I started to cough and got dizzy." Meanwhile, the other guests carried on as if nothing were amiss, sending a powerful message to Matthews: When you cease to be uncomfortable, you accept the status quo and stop thinking about innovation.
She drew on that experience a few years later when, as a junior at Harvard in 2011, she was taking an engineering class for non-engineers and was tasked with inventing a product that served a social good. With classmate Julia Silverman, she came up with the idea for Soccket, a soccer ball that captures kinetic energy and stores it in an internal generator that can light a room or charge a cell phone. The ball gave birth to a company, Uncharted Play, that is now "a profitable startup with gross profit margins that have doubled year after year for the last three years," says Matthews. (Silverman left the company in 2015.)
"Believe it or not, I love being uncomfortable," says Matthews. "Discomfort breeds innovation." And there has been plenty of discomfort in Matthews's life. After graduation, she entered the MBA program at Harvard and, at the same time, opened her own manufacturing facility in Newburgh, New York. "It was the hardest two years of my life," she recalls. "I was a full-time MBA student, commuting between Boston and New York while running my company. There were many times when I thought I wouldn't be able to keep going." But she did, and she learned plenty about R&D, supply chain management, and the manufacturing process--enough to know she didn't want to be a manufacturer. "It was cool to bring jobs to the community, but it was hard to train workers and it wasn't really sustainable in terms of macro growth," she says. And macro growth was always her big goal.
To that end, she switched to contract manufacturing and worked to make her technology scalable by shrinking it 94.5 percent in less than four years with just under $800,000 in outside funding. Shrinking the technology made the ball lighter and a bit more like a traditional soccer ball. "In the last year, we sold over 50,000 units, putting our international supply chain and the scalability of our product to the test," she ways. In addition to Soccket, the company makes a power-generating jump rope called Pulse. The two products, which are typically purchased by governments and large corporations that brand and distribute them in Africa through NGOs, generated $6 million in revenue last year for Uncharted Play. The soccer balls and jump ropes are off-grid energy sources, but they're also distributed with a curriculum--a five-part course that uses the products to teach STEM concepts--and a message to kids to "think out of bounds."
So, yes, at quick glance, Uncharted Play looks a lot like a toy company, and that suits Matthews just fine. That perception gave her the peace and quite to set the stage for a major pivot. "If we wanted to have the most impact and grow in a way that would allow us to do the most good, it made sense to expand beyond play and pivot to an energy company," says Matthews. And that's in the works now, as Matthews rebrands her company M.O.R.E. (for "motion-based off-grid renewable energy"), with a wildly ambitious goal to "democratize on-demand power for everyone."
M.O.R.E. is an energy company that's creating a micro-generating system that can harness the kinetic energy of just about anything that moves. Matthews and her team are using what they learned shrinking Soccket's internal technology to expand her market to other consumer products. On deck: a baby stroller that generates enough power to charge a cell phone. And Matthews hints at partnerships with original-equipment manufacturers in other industries to develop additional products as well. To help finance M.O.R.E, she's recently raised a $7 million Series A round of capital -- an amount that places Uncharted Play "among the top three most heavily funded startups run by an African American woman," says Matthews. All that discomfort may just pay off.