Jessica O. Matthews & Julia Silverman, Founders of Uncharted Play

The Story Exchange is devoting the month of April to profiling young women who have started their own businesses. This week we talked to Jessica O. Matthews, who co-invented the sOccket, and founded Uncharted Play with Julia Silverman.

The sOccket looks like a regular soccer ball, but it doubles as an energy-harvesting source that can help light up communities without access to electricity.

Jessica O. Matthews and Julia Silverman, who are in their early 20s, came up with the idea for the sOccket while working on a class project during their junior year at Harvard.

They were taking an engineering class for non-engineering majors and were tasked with addressing a social issue through art and science.

Find out how the sOccket changes communities through game and play.

Both had travelled extensively through Africa – Matthews is Nigerian-American – and knew that soccer was a hugely popular sport. They also noticed that African children made soccer balls out of just about anything, including discarded plastic bags.

“We wanted to create a product that would change their lives,” says Matthews. In Africa, limited access to electricity leads to the use of fume-emitting kerosene lamps that are expensive to fuel and harmful to the health (The fumes the children inhale from these lamps are the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.)

Power Play

So the pair started thinking: “Why don’t we give you something that you already like to do and get what you need,” explains Matthews. From there, they came up with prototypes for the sOccket.

A mechanism inside the sOccket harnesses energy during play and stores it in a battery that can be used later to power different devices from cell phones to small appliances. About 30 minutes of play is enough to power an LED light for up to 3 hours.

Matthews and Silverman didn’t realize the power of their invention until they tested it in South Africa in 2010.

“It was resonating with people and that convinced engineers to come on board,” says Matthews. A new model of the sOccket will be released in June, which will be even lighter and more energy efficient.

Uncharted Play

Last May, Matthews and Silverman set up their social enterprise, Uncharted Play, to create fun products and services that address major societal issues.

The team has received funding from grants and family members to help develop their product, but Matthews says that raising money has been the toughest challenge.

“Social impact is important to us. It’s in the heart of what we do and that’s what we established our business model on. It’s hard to find the right people who believe in the same things that we believe in.”

To date, they have about 6,000 sOcckets confirmed for distribution to developing countries in Africa, Central America, and Asia.

The team hopes that with their “buy-one-give-one” program they can roll out 40,000 sOcckets by the end of the year.

For young entrepreneurs looking to start a social enterprise Matthews advice is simple: “Just find an issue you’re passionate about and start googling how you can make a change. You just need to start and take the first step.”

To support Uncharted Play and the sOccket click here.