Turning Play to Power

Through pure innovation, two Harvard undergrads created an energy-harvesting soccer ball that quite literally empowers communities by converting motion into energy. Meet these young mothers of invention, who will be highlighted by Toyota and The Daily Beast, at the Women in the World Summit.

02.28.12 4:00 PM ET

As undergraduates at Harvard, Jessica O. Matthews, Julia Silverman and two of their classmates brainstormed an idea for their engineering class while blaring Britney Spears. Neither of them were engineering majors, but through pure innovation, they created an energy harvesting soccer ball that quite literally empowers communities. Thirty minutes of play with the sOccket powers up to three hours of an LED light.

“If ever there was an innovator, she’s it,” affect their own environments,” said former president Bill Clinton, when he introduced Matthews, at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2011, where she held her own on a stage with bigwigs who confront global power issues. 

The girls, who are in their early 20s, invented the sOccket specifically with developing nations in mind. Twenty-five percent of the world’s kids do not have access to electricity, but most of them do play soccer. The young inventors put two and two together and created a ball that uses technology similar to a self-winding watch.  As the ball rolls, the mechanism inside rolls with it, harnessing energy and storing it in a battery.  A child can play until dusk, and then use that same ball to power a reading lamp throughout the night.

When coming up with the idea, the girls knew they wanted to make something that would have a global impact. They heard stories of children who studied under street lamps, or went to school with ash under their noses from toxic kerosene lamps and decided to do something about it. The statistics were abysmal. The fumes the children inhaled from these lamps, diesel generators, and other energy sources were the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Standard soccer balls donated to these communities have a lifespan of 4-6 weeks because the pin is lost or they are punctured on the rough terrain. As a result, kids play with makeshift balls constructed of littered plastic bags and bottles, which last a fraction of the time. 

Through grants, angel investors, the help of family and sheer will, the girls created a prototype of their final exam and took it to the streets. They’ve now tested it with children in Nigeria, South Africa, Haiti, Mexico and Spain and even the United States. To date, there are 3,500 sOcckets confirmed for distribution across the globe. Each time a child receives the heavier sOccket as opposed to a normal soccer ball, Matthews and Silverman receive not only excitement, but also innovative ideas for what this ball can power.

This idea of how to make it better goes to the heart of Uncharted Play, the organization that sprouted out of sOccket—innovation is contagious. “We want to empower people to understand how they can affect their own environments.”  says Matthews. One of the ways they hope to spread this type of thinking is through fun. The purpose of using the soccer ball, other than being a simple and brilliant solution to a complex problem, is to make it seem effortless and full of joy. Kids like to play soccer. In fact, some of the children who tested the balls refused to stop after just 30 minutes of play.

Most importantly, these young innovators lead by example.  When they first took their idea to engineers, they were told it wasn’t going to work. Nonetheless they forged ahead, and now even attribute some of their success to their naiveté. “In our lack of experience, we didn't understand everything, but more importantly we didn’t understand all of the obstacles. We weren’t afraid of them,” says Matthews.