The inventor of the energy-harnessing soccer ball made a huge pivot -- and it's paying off big time

Uncharted Play Jessica O. MatthewsUncharted PlayJessica O. Matthews, founder and CEO of Uncharted Play.

Jessica O. Matthews is a lot of things: a Harvard graduate, an American, a Nigerian, a black woman, an inventor, and a CEO.

What she isn’t is the typical Silicon Valley tech bro — and she wears that like a badge of honour.

“I joke now that I was always trying to be the perfect balance between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beyoncé,” Matthews told Business Insider. “I definitely still try to do that right now.”

Matthews is the founder of Uncharted Play, a company that makes kinetic energy-harnessing products in order to “democratize energy access worldwide.”

Uncharted Play first made headlines for its energy-harnessing soccer ball, called the Soccket, that could power a lamp after a few hours of play. But the company has recently made a big pivot, raised a Series A, and moved to a new office, which is all part of what Matthews calls “phase three.”

“It was them telling me to essentially get used to dying”

Matthews is a dual citizen of Nigeria and the US who grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY, before attending Harvard. It was during her undergrad years that the idea for what is now Uncharted Play was born.

The idea stemmed from an experience she had at her aunt’s wedding in Nigeria. During the party, the power went out and the diesel generators were brought out. This was a fact of life in Nigeria due to an unstable energy supply, Matthews said. But the fumes from the generators were bothering Matthews, and she mentioned it to her relatives.

“They said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,'” Matthews said. “I remember this bothered me so much because it was them telling me to essentially get used to dying. But what was even more saddening for me was that it was very clear that’s what they had gotten used to doing.”

Matthews wanted to come up with an alternative to the diesel generators, one that was reliable and provided cleaner energy. Because her relatives and friends in Nigeria were soccer fans, the idea for an energy harnessing soccer ball was a natural fit.

The Soccket

The Soccket debuted to much acclaim. Kids were already playing with soccer balls every day, but this one could provide enough light to help them do their homework once it got dark out. The seemingly simple idea was an instant hit — even President Obama tried to juggle one, and Matthews was invited to the White House — and Uncharted Play began selling the balls to charities and corporations that distributed them to impoverished communities. The company also invented a jump rope, called the Pulse, around a similar concept.

But not everything went as planned. According to a story from Public Radio International’s Jennifer Collins, the Soccket had some major issues from a manufacturing standpoint. Collins travelled to a rural Mexican town where kids were given the balls and found that most had broken, sometimes as quickly as three days after they were received. The balls were supposed to last three years.

In 2014, Uncharted Play wrote a post on its Soccket Kickstarter page. The post details the manufacturing issues with the ball, shipping mishaps that prevented those who donated from ever even receiving a ball, and the overall quality control issues with the product.

The post was frank: “In summary, we totally f—– up this Kickstarter campaign,” the company wrote. “We could not be more sincerely sorry for all that has occurred with this campaign.”

While Matthews doesn’t address the early shortcomings of the Soccket directly, she acknowledged that Uncharted Play needed to make a change to its business model.

“We’re never going to make the best soccer ball, we’re never going to make the best jump rope, we’re never going to make the best stroller,” Matthews said. “So why can’t we just partner?”

‘We’re in the game now’

The change occurred after Matthews graduated from Harvard Business School. That’s when the company entered its third phase, she says.

Uncharted Play office HarlemyUncharted PlayThe outside of Uncharted Play’s new office in Harlem, located in a historic brownstone.

“I was at the point where I had to change a lot of things,” Matthews said. “I’m like, ‘I can’t be ignorant anymore.’ I know what it takes to build an ongoing, sustainable enterprise, and there need to be changes. That was when we started to do an overall analysis of, what is our true competitive advantage? What is the thing that sets Uncharted Play apart?”

That thing, she realised, was the technology that actually went into the soccer ball and the jump rope, which the company named “M.O.R.E.” — Motion-based, off-grid renewable energy. Uncharted Play decided to pivot, and began approaching corporate partners that could install M.O.R.E. technology into their existing products. The soccer ball and the pulse are now what Matthews calls the company’s “legacy products.”

While Matthews doesn’t give the names of specific companies, she said the technology can be installed in anything from a baby stroller to furniture to floor panels — anything that can harness kinetic energy.

Uncharted Play now has 15 patents and patents pending for its technology; Matthews says its gross profit margins are doubling, year over year; and the company is profitable. Uncharted Play just moved to a new office in Harlem — a move Matthews hopes helps her employees “see a larger segment of the world” and create more meaningful products.

The company also recently raised a $7 million Series A round, which Matthews says is the largest amount raised by a woman of colour, ever.

“The average amount a black woman will raise over the course of her life is $34,000,” Matthews said. “We raised $7M — the average series A that people raise. And by people I mean white, straight males. Why is this exciting? We’re in the game now. I’m excited that I’m playing on an equal level as the people that look opposite of me in Silicon Valley.”

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