Jessica Matthews, the inventor of SOCCKET is 26-years old and has topped Forbes 30 under 30 list this year and was named as a “Change Agent” by USA Today for her invention, the SOCCKET – a soccer ball that harnesses kinetic energy from playing. The energy can then be used for everyday purposes, which is especially handy in countries where electricity is scarce. For every 30 minutes of playing with the ball, up to 3 hours of LED wattage is generated. The invention has gained major accolades from President Obama and President Clinton, among other notable influencers. Jessica and the Uncharted Play team just returned from the World Cup where they introduced a new Uncharted Play curriculum (with the SOCCKET as the centerpiece) to school aged children in Brazil’s favelas. This is my original article on the SOCCKET.
I wanted to do a "Where are they now" article. This is my interview with Ms. Matthews.
What prompted you to invent the SOCCKET, and found Uncharted Play?
The SOCCKET started as a group project at Harvard in an engineering class for non-majors. My group was tasked with the broad challenge of creating a game that would help address a global development issue, and soccer, being such a global sport, was a natural fit. As a Nigerian-American, I would frequently travel to visit my family's village and was inspired by the boundless energy and passion that the children had for soccer. Around the same time as our project, I traveled back to Nigeria for my Aunt's wedding when in the middle of the ceremony there was a power outage. I was surprised not by the power-loss, which is frequent all across Nigeria, but to see my family break out these clunky kerosene generators emitting such noxious polluting gases. I was coughing and looked a little perturbed when offhand someone said "You'll get used to it." At that moment, it clicked, and I knew that I would not get used to it and no one else should have to either. Uncharted Play was founded to find new sustainable answers to global issues, and instead of focusing on solutions like generators, which are dangerous and connote ideas of loss and lack of resources, direct that passion and joy from play and turn it into a tangible and profound asset.
What is the mission behind Uncharted Play’s new curriculum Think Out of Bounds?
Our Think Out of Bounds curriculum takes the inherent curiosity and passion in play and helps pivot it into an empowering social tool. Play is collaborative and intuitive, and by providing kids with our energy-generating products, the SOCCKET and the PULSE jumprope, with the structure of the STEM curriculum we establish a baseline for connecting the idea of learning with fun. Not only does the SOCCKET serve as a tool for teaching kids about technology and how to be an inventor, but its history and its potential inspires and reinforces the idea of creative confidence; that anyone can be an inventor.
What makes Think Out of Bounds different than other learning programs?
The Think Out of Bounds curriculum is distinctive in that it challenges kids to create organic solutions to unique issues affecting their own communities. Think Out of Bounds empowers kids to take ownership of their own communities and to think critically about interesting and new ways to counter some of their most salient social issues.
Please describe how the SOCCKET is used:
Housed in the core of the SOCCKET, there is a mechanism consisting of a pendulum, motor, and battery, that when kicked collects the kinetic energy from play and transforms it into electricity. A half-hour of play powers an LED light for 3 hours. We distribute the SOCCKET's along with our TOOB curriculum and Share-Kits to our non-profit and NGO partners who have long standing relationships in developing communities. When utilized in schools, the children play with the SOCCKET recreationally, and then plug it into its companion Share-Kit which disperses the power into five separate flashlights. Kids can then bring their flashlight home to read and do homework once it gets dark. Not only does the SOCCKET provide a tangible alternative to kerosene gas lamps, but it also incentives children to come to school.
What is your history with Toyota, and why did you decide to team up with them for the Uncharted Play curriculum?
Our history with Toyota starts back in 2012 when myself and co-founder Julia Silverman were awarded Toyota's "Mothers of Invention" award. It was one of the first times we had been recognized for our efforts and the grant they provided us was the first big financial investment we had received, allowing us to seriously grow our company and our impact. When we had decided we wanted to go to Brazil and teach our curriculum to children in the Rio community, Toyota was a natural partner. Not only do we value Toyota's legacy of supporting invention and sustainability worldwide, but also how seamlessly their products fit into the model of innovation and creativity we hope to spur in children.
Uncharted Play has been widely recognized in the field of social entrepreneurship. Uncharted Play, a social invention company best known for the SOCCKET, a soccer ball that harnesses kinetic energy from play for practical, everyday use, has joined forces with Toyota, the world's top automaker, to introduce UP’s Think Out of Bounds curriculum, aimed at encouraging social invention across the globe.
What would be your number one piece of advice for someone wanting to start a company in the sustainable tech and STEM education space?
I believe one of the most important components of starting a new company, especially one with a STEM foundation, is investment in your employees. Children aren't the only ones who can gain value from tinkering and exploring the limits of the tech space. Allow your team members, even those who might not work in product development or engineering, a chance to explore design and really get to know the technical side of your organization. When everyone has a base understanding of how things work and the process of innovation, there's a great opportunity to spur creative new ideas that are informed by all types of backgrounds.
Your invention has significant practical applications in energy starved regions around the world. Your work in Brazil, you affectionately refer to as an “impact mission.” How did the children respond to the SOCCKET? Any stories from their play with the ball?
Immediately upon arrival at the community center we worked in, the children saw the SOCCKET and were so excited to just start playing; they didn't even know there was anything special about them. Once we got a chance to tire them out and sit down with them and show them the ball and the light it produced, they were amazed. The kids were thinking up all sorts of ways to try and adapt the technology to other things. Kite flying is huge in Rio and we saw some of the kids trying to work on a way to harness the rotational energy of the spool of string, so that once the wind catches the kite's sails, it would spin and power the battery.