Jessica Matthews is bringing clean energy to the world, one sport at a time.
Matthews is the founder of Uncharted Play, a startup making sports equipment that generates energy as you play.
“We are organized around one simple mission — to inspire people around the world to lead playful lives and foster their wellbeing,” Matthews told VentureBeat in an interview. “Life brings up all these distractions, and it is the job of businesses to design products that make it easier for people to do good. Recycling is annoying, and a solar panel won’t inspire kids to take something apart and put it back together. What we do is put utility into the most loved sport around the world.”
Uncharted Play’s first product is the SOCCKET, an energy-harnessing soccer ball. A pendulum-like mechanism in the ball captures kinetic energy and stores it in the ball for later use as an off-the-grid power source. Thirty minutes of play can power a simple LED lamp for three hours.
Millions of people in the developing world lack access to clean, safe, and affordable electricity. Power is unreliable and often comes from dangerous sources, like diesel generators or kerosene lamps.
Matthews’ family is from Nigeria. On a visit in 2008, she saw how expensive power was and how many families struggled to afford their utility needs. Lack of light makes it extremely difficult for students to do their homework or families to finish chores at night.
At the same time, the kids love playing soccer — they play at home, at school, in the streets, alone, with friends, in the morning, in the afternoon, and anytime and anywhere in between.
Matthews wondered if there was a way to harness that joyful energy into actual energy.
“Parents want their kids to play, and this is even more important in the developing world, in cultures where people are all about being jovial and loving life, while recognizing that things aren’t great,” Matthews said. “We give them a win-win-win that not only addresses an issue, but inspires them to think and discuss. And the kids get to play more.”
Matthews was an undergrad at Harvard at the time. She and cofounder Julia Silverman built the prototype of SOCCKET as part of a class project. They realized the opportunity was much greater and founded Uncharted Play in 2011 in New York City.
SOCCKET weighs 17 oz, which is only 1 oz more than a normal soccer ball. It is airless, “deflation-proof,” and has a water resistant shell. It has a 6 watt output, which is capable of powering an LED lamp for more than 72 hours. It also has an adapter to charge an iPhone.
So far the product has been tested in South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nigeria, Tanzania, and a few places around the U.S. Matthews aims to spread Uncharted Play products around the world and is brimming with ideas for the future.
The soccer ball is the first product and the jumprope is “almost ready.” The jumprope will hold four times as much power as the SOCCKET, and 15 minutes of jumping can provide six hours of LED light. Uncharted Play is also working on an American football and a skateboard.
It is a for-profit company and works with corporate sponsors and partners such as Western Union to make money. Uncharted Play also works with NGOs to manage distribution on the ground in developing countries, where the products are free. Matthews is a strong believer in for-profit social enterprises and thinks some day all companies will become social enterprises and impact companies.
“To create the best products, you have to be part of economy,” she said. “It forces you to make changes that make people want to buy your products. The only way to have a sustainable company is to have real and honest respect for your customers. This is what sustainability is about.”
Matthews said her vision is “super global” and the opportunities are endless.
Granted soccer balls and jump ropes aren’t a replacement for a sustainable and reliable energy grid, but in places where reliable energy isn’t a reality, these products are a creative solution.
They bring light and joy into places where life is hard, one kick of a soccer ball at a time.