17 Aug 2015
The Play Alchemist
Through a line of energy-generating sport products, Jessica Matthews is putting power in the hands of those who need it mostby Constantine von HoffmanTopics:
Photo by Benoit Cortet
When Jessica Matthews (AB 2010, MBA 2014) was 19 and in her junior year of college, she and some classmates invented the Soccket, a soccer ball that generates and stores electricity during play. It was designed to provide a clean source of light for the nearly 1.2 billion people who otherwise must rely on dirty or dangerous energy sources like kerosene lamps and diesel generators.
The Soccket is not unlike Matthews herself: a bundle of energy using play to change the world.
Creating things seems to come naturally to Matthews, who has been an inventor since grade school.
“I love tinkering and creating things that didn’t exist,” she says. “I loved doing science fairs. To me, it was so exciting just to play around and see things and present new ideas to people. There are so many places in my mother’s house that are charred from my experiments gone wrong—but it was all worth it in the end.”
As a student at Harvard College, Matthews continued her experimentation, signing up for a class called Affecting Change through Art and Science. “I took the course because people said, ‘You can create cool stuff and they give you money to do it,’ which sounded perfect to me," she says. “I was able to really pull from my experiences of just tinkering and using anything to create prototypes. I was also really comfortable with the stages of prototyping and understanding that, when you first have a concept, it will eventually develop into something very different than what you thought it would be. That’s my nature.”
Although some inventors will create something and then see if there is a use for it, that wasn’t the case with the Soccket ball: it was created with a specific need in mind. “That’s why it was so important for me to study psychology and economics in undergrad,” she says. “What I do is take technology and combine it with human nature to create meaningful products.”
After she graduated, Matthews did a stint at a startup, but soon left that position to help launch Uncharted Play, a company based in New York City that expands on the socially beneficial outcomes of play-based products. As the firm’s chief executive officer, she’s overseen the development of several new products, such as Pulse, a jump rope that can generate and store enough power to charge a cell phone.
At the same time she was running Uncharted Play, Matthews enrolled at HBS. “It was exciting, because each day I was able to take what I’d learned from class and apply it to real situations,” she says. “It was beyond the Socratic method---like learning how to fight in the ring with your opponent in there with you.”
Running a company in New York while going to school full time in Cambridge was no small task. It meant 10 hours of commuting every week, not getting much sleep, and not really taking care of herself the way she would have liked. But Matthews knows that the expertise she got from her time at HBS is what will allow her inventions to have a greater impact.
“It truly is a question of, how do you execute on this invention? What do you have to do to make it come to life and reach the people you need to reach so that it can have a meaningful impact?” she asks. “To me, that's where business comes in. If you want to create a meaningful impact with your ideas, you have to be able to devise a system that can allow your product or service to reach as many people as possible in a sustainable way.”
So far, it is reaching people quite nicely. As of April, the company has sold 50,000 Socckets, and Pulses are currently sold out. The company adheres to a “buy-one, give-one” model of corporate philanthropy, but it adds something extra: not only does one needy child get access to its play products each time a product is sold, but Uncharted Play also gives access to its Think Out of Bounds educational curriculum. The program is a five-part course of study that uses the company’s energy-generating products to teach about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); inspire invention with limited resources; and encourage students to see life as a game that can be won regardless of age, religion, race, or gender. The products and curriculum are distributed through established NGOs, on the ground. In addition, the company is releasing a new app, called Plus, that will increase customer engagement by tracking everything from production to distribution of the product they’ve sponsored. If they choose, the customer can even get a notification every time the item they have sponsored is used.
“It's using this technology to deepen the connection between the person who made the purchase and the actual giving that’s happened,” Matthews says. The Plus app will also let users vote to support beneficial social projects. Each month, three social innovations will be featured, and users can vote on the projects they want Uncharted Play to help bring to life.
The app will work hand in hand with Uncharted Play’s newest line of smart-sports products. Referred to as its “+” line, these will be the first and only line of smart-sports products that are self-charging. The more you play with the product, the more energy is created to power the smart chip inside, thus removing the need for external charging. The products will be powered by M.O.R.E., the company’s proprietary, customizable technology that harnesses the power of movement to power smart technology.
Matthews, who was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, has dual citizenship to both countries. She has spent a considerable amount of time in Nigeria visiting family. In 2013 the Nigerian government named her Ambassador of Entrepreneurship, an unpaid position in which she helps to engage Nigerian youth in innovation and entrepreneurship. She is also cofounder and executive director of KDDC, a 30-megawatt hydropower dam—one of the first to be privatized in the country. She says her knowledge of Nigeria, which has 250 ethnic groups spread among its 177 million people, has been a great help in her business life.
“Too often, people view ethnicity or gender as an obstacle to overcome,” says Mathews. “However, our company’s ability to show so much empathy for so many different groups around the world actually gives us a leg up when we’re thinking about how we design products.”
Class of MBA 2014, Section H