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sOccket Inventors: Being Young and Stubborn Helps Innovation

How two entrepreneurs light up the dimmest corners of the world with a soccer ball.

It’s called the “sOccket.” It looks and works just like a soccer ball, but inside, it contains the technology to convert physical movement into electricity. Kick it around in a soccer game, then pull out the little lamp stored inside and you have hours of light.

This improbable gadget was invented not by engineers or scientists, but by two 23-year-olds, just out of Harvard. Both Jessica O. Matthews and Julia Silverman had spent time in Africa and recognized that in many areas, there remains a great need for electricity. Small homes often have only kerosene lamps to provide light, which spew toxins equivalent to two packs of cigarettes a day.

Yet despite the obvious need for a solution, when the young women first proposed their gadget, engineers were skeptical. “It’s impossible,” the pair were told. “But our standard for good enough was very different from most engineers,” Silverman said. “All we were looking for was two hours of light.”

They kept at it until they had a functioning prototype. “It’s really easy to think outside the box if you have no idea that there is a box,” Matthews said. Being young and stubborn she joked, came in handy, too.

The children who’ve been given a sOccket are dazzled. They think it’s magic, Silverman said. They’re thrilled enough to be given a ball to play with—but to be shown that it can also provide them with light when they go home for the night strikes them as “extraordinary cool,” as one kid told them in Matthews’ native Nigeria.

Their company is called Uncharted Play, Inc., because play is central to their vision. Playfulness is powerful, they believe. “Embrace what people love to do and amplify it,” said Matthews.

In June, Uncharted Play will release a new version of the ball, an update of the prototype that kicked everything off last year. Its very existence is proof of what two young women with a good idea can do.