This Harvard grad created a soccer ball that generates renewable power when it is kicked about

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 15, 2024 12:11 PM EDT
Jessica O. Matthews with is a sustainability and social entrepreneur. Photo Credit; LinkedIn

Climate change and sustainability have dominated mainstream 21st-century discourse. Climate scientists and activists have advocated for transitioning to renewable energy to address the climate crisis. Combining play and technology, Jessica O. Matthews invented the Soccket ball that harnesses kinetic energy to create sustainable power.

Matthews, 36, is creating products that inspire people to engage with sustainable power.

“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,” she explained.

Reliable electricity remains a luxury for many people living in developing countries. In fact, over a billion people around the world lack access to stable energy sources. This was a distant reality for Mathews who grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York City. During a visit to Nigeria at 17, the power went out at her aunt’s wedding and the diesel generators were brought out. The fumes from the generators bothered Matthews and she was inspired to come up with an alternative reliable and cleaner source of energy.

While a junior at Harvard, she was tasked with inventing a new product to help address a key challenge in developing countries. Matthews and her teammates began by experimenting with everyday items. The idea for an energy-harnessing soccer ball came naturally as her relatives and friends in Nigeria were soccer fans. They taped a shake-to-charge flashlight inside a hamster ball to test for kinetic energy. By rolling the contraption back and forth, they proved the concept behind the Sockett could work.

The students refined their invention using a pendulum within the ball that captures the kinetic energy generated as it moves around. It consequently drives a motor and charges a Lithium-ion battery inside the Sockett. Matthews and her peers also designed Soccket plugs that fit directly into lamps. The soccer ball was tested in the field with users and was able to power an LED lamp for three hours following half an hour of play. It however needed to be both light and durable enough to withstand significant force from games.

After graduating from college, Matthews co-founded Uncharted Power to develop the Soccket prototype into a viable commercial product. Engineers outrightly told them that executing the idea was impossible. Nonetheless, they continued to research vendors and examine soccer ball materials with some cushion to protect the pendulum, motor and battery inside their ball. The team eventually arrived at a working model following countless versions. It weighed 17 ounces, only one ounce heavier than a standard-issue soccer ball.

The debut of Soccket underscored President Barack Obama’s “Power Africa” plan to invest $7 billion in energy access programs in Tanzania and all over Africa. “I thought it was pretty cool. You can imagine this in villages all across the country,” President Obama said after using the ball for the first time.

Prominent personalities such as former US President Bill Clinton and Bill Gates have all kicked a Soccket. Uncharted Power has sold and distributed more than 500,000 units in developing regions, primarily in Africa and Latin America since its launch. The Soccket retails for around $100 and operates on a buy-one-give-one model where for each ball purchased, one is given to a child in need. Operating as a for-profit company, it works with corporate sponsors and partners such as Western Union to make money and collaborates with nonprofits to manage distribution on the ground in developing countries where the products are free.

“To create the best products, you have to be part of economy. 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 about using play to drive social justice and inspire innovation.

In addition to the Soccket, the company used similar technology to invent a jump rope called the Pulse. This way, girls in communities where playing soccer isn’t allowed can still contribute to sustainable energy. Matthews combined the concepts behind both inventions to create M.O.R.E. – Motion-based, off-grid renewable energy. Uncharted Power then began approaching corporate partners that could install M.O.R.E. technology into their existing products. The decision to pivot has enabled the company to build an ongoing, sustainable enterprise.

In 2016, Matthews raised $7 million in Series A funding for Uncharted Power. The company currently has 15 patents and patents pending for its technology. It has been profitable for nearly a decade, with gross profit margins doubling, year over year. Matthews has also created a non-profit arm, the Harlem Tech Fund (HTF) to support startups and offer technology training to 10,000 Harlem residents.