Last year, Jessica O. Matthews and Julia Silverman gave social enterprise a new spin that would show the planet how doing good and doing good business didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
The young women met three years earlier as juniors at Harvard University. Aspiring social scientists with no engineering know-how, they teamed up on a class project that ultimately morphed into a useful invention—a soccer ball that’s also a portable, eco-friendly energy generator. Called the “sOccket,” the ball harnesses energy from rotating in play with technology that converts motion into power. The unique ball stores three hours of electricity after just thirty minutes of use. Small appliances like LED lamps, cell phones, mini refrigerators, and water sterilization devices can be plugged in and recharged. The world of play, they realized, was truly uncharted territory. Their innovation could address real issues facing developing countries like the fact that twenty-five percent of the world’s population is living without reliable electricity.
After graduation, Matthews and Silverman set up shop in New York City for their fledgling company, Uncharted Play, to further develop the sOccket and other functional products. Earlier this year they were awarded a ‘Toyota Driving Solutions’ philanthropic grant at the third annual Newsweek Daily Beast Women in the World Summit. They’ve also garnered kudos from a former president, educators, and high-ranking government officials for having taken a beloved worldwide sport and using it to achieve good. Happy with their progress, the twenty-four-year-olds are even more excited about where they’re going.
This summer, the young entrepreneurs attended the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil where they met other innovators from around the world and spoke at TEDx Rio+20. More recently our writer caught up with the pair to discuss what the startup is doing one year later.
Uncharted Play CEO Jessica Matthews characterized being in New York City on a Lincoln Center stage at this year’s Women in the World Summit as, quite simply, surreal. It was “so humbling, an amazing opportunity to be able to tell our story.” Co-founder and CSO Julia Silverman echoed Matthews’ sentiments. She was awed by the event’s accomplished cohort of participating women whom she and Matthews were able to count themselves among, and added how she had hoped “in some small way we inspired people as well.”
Receiving the ‘Toyota Driving Solutions’ grant was the icing on the cake. The young women were jubilant that day in March when the size of the grant was announced as $50,000. They began to imagine just how much the newfound capital would enable them to do. “We couldn’t have been happier,” Matthews admitted.
The funding they received from the grant played a very key role for their company this past year. “The Toyota funding was almost 100% used toward tooling the production of the sOccket,” explained Matthews. The sOccket had gone through a redesign and they knew what they needed to do to make the balls better, they just didn’t have the funding. Now, “every ball out there is a direct result of Toyota giving us the grant,” said Matthews. The metrics? About 13,000 balls are now confirmed for distribution in Latin America, Africa, and the United States.
The Mothers of Invention moniker is an apt one. Referring to the development of sOccket, Silverman admitted that it was a painful process and likened it to watching a baby grow up and make mistakes. After all, “it’s an evolving business.” But, “it’s also such an honor having a sisterhood of people thinking creatively.” Matthews noted, “when you say you’re a mother of invention it’s this idea of not just coming out with a cool product in a vacuum, but truly designing it so that it can spread and effect people for years to come.” Yet, while she acknowledged that the sOccket is the defining thing, they don’t want it to be the only thing they do. They want to show people that there is more that’s possible in the world of social enterprise—the world of playing for good and attempting to rethink function.
So what are their goals for Uncharted Play, of which sOccket is the flagship product? “Our target is really the child in resource-poor communities,” said Matthews.
There’s also a new product in the wings at Uncharted Play that will be available online by year’s end. It’s called the ‘Ludo’ which is Latin for ‘I play’. A smart ball for the budding humanitarian that looks like the sOccket, but that has an energy-harnessing mechanism with a smart-chip that tracks the hours of play you accumulate with the ball. Whether you are playing with friends on the beach or at a picnic, it lets you wirelessly upload those hours to a new giving platform called Play Fund. You can use your hours of play to buy everything from books to medical supplies, and on a grander scale potentially micro-fund classrooms and loans to women who want to run their own business. “We’re trying to make it easier for people to do good. You buy this ball and that’s it. All you need to do is play,” Matthews said, “and the more you play, the more you give.”
Raising the Bar Again
Having achieved some measure of success at a relatively early age, one might ask why the pair intends to go to Harvard Business School this fall. “We’re very aware of the fact that you are only done learning when you’ve decided that you’re done learning,” said Matthews. So, rather than wait five or ten years when the neophyte business would perhaps be less high-maintenance, “our company, mission and products could benefit from our knowledge now.” And, they get to test out what the professors are telling them in real time!
Both agree that when running a business fiscal responsibility is extremely important. “Bringing an ethical eye to your operations and to the way you allocate funds and other resources is critical to how a business operates. It’s not just about the accounting, it’s also about the values that you hold central to your mission and the vision of your company,” Silverman said. Matthews added, “there’s a way to incorporate into your business a triple bottom line and ask yourself ‘why are we spending money on this; why are we trying to reach this profitability level; what does this all mean in the bigger picture?’”
As for future goals, the two women say they’re firmly committed to the concept that early success won’t sway their core beliefs about the company or what they’re trying to do. “We want to bring out in people the idea that perhaps magic does exist. Perhaps fun is something that really should be an important part of your day,” Matthews said. They want to help people understand that this is a global community and that continuing to produce these products, will hopefully make a meaningful impact on people’s lives.
“When we were awarded the Toyota grant,” said Matthews, “we realized that we weren’t done. A roomful of women in that room encouraged us to keep going. We feel like we have a lot of people who believe in us, who have invested in us,” she concluded, “and we are going to do everything we can to show them they were right.”
Stay tuned – The Mothers of Invention 2013 is coming soon!