NEW YORK — Jessica O. Matthews has a big personality. How big? Let’s just say large enough to correct the president of the United States.
Last summer, Matthews and a few of her small team from Uncharted Play were invited by the White House to join President Obama on a trip to Tanzania, where he would single out her company’s first invention — a soccer ball called Soccket that generates electricity for an attachable reading lamp.
“After juggling the ball, (Obama) explained (to reporters) how if you played for three hours, you got 30 minutes of lamp time, when it’s the opposite,” Matthews recalls, shrinking in her office chair in mock horror. “So I just blurted out, ‘No, no, no, it’s 30 minutes of play for three hours of light!’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, no.’ But, I had to do it.”
By all accounts, Matthews, 26, has been charging fearlessly into the breach since she was a child.
One of two daughters raised by Nigerian immigrants in the suburbs of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., she blazed through her teenage years. Endless extra-curricular kudos included science-fair laurels and track-and-field accomplishments, such as a 52-second 400.
“I was fast,” says Matthews. “My parents always pushed us in everything in life. Their philosophy was, if you want to run as fast as you can, you have to be the one leading that run.”
After older sister Tiana, 27, decamped for Harvard, younger sister was on her heels. At Harvard, Matthews began studying psychology and economics, but it was a course that challenged students to brainstorm science projects with artistic and social merit that led to her future.
“That’s when I first came up with the idea for Soccket,” she says of the 2008 epiphany. “It was just high school physics, using a shake-to-charge flashlight and a hamster wheel.”
Matthews just finished her MBA at Harvard, while running Uncharted Play. Now, countless prototypes after that first one, she’s looking to make a big push with Soccket at next month’s soccer World Cup in Brazil.
She hopes to sell the ball (which retails for $99 in a buy one, donate one promotion) and generate interest from non-governmental organizations, which could distribute Soccket as both a practical device and scientific teaching tool.
Matthews’ invention has the potential both to help children do homework, thanks to their favorite pastime, and potentially pique their scientific curiosity, says Christopher Fabian, co-head of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit.
“Soccket brings together play and energy, which is a great area to be working in,” says Fabian. He deploys his team’s modest five-figure budget to seed small inventors in Third World countries, particularly Africa, where Matthews has conducted much of her Soccket field testing.
“In a place like Burundi, for example, only 4% of the people have access to the electrical grid, and it’s not uncommon to spend 20% of one’s daily income of one dollar on re-charging your mobile phone.”
Fabian says the United Nations is busy setting up a fund modeled on traditional venture-capital firms that would provide seed capital for “high-risk but also potentially world-changing projects,” such as a recently implemented system of recording births in Nigeria via text messages. “The greatest solutions for Africa may not come out of Silicon Valley or New York. You have to look locally.”
Matthews wouldn’t disagree. Her favorite story regarding Soccket is about a shy Nigerian boy who wasn’t a particularly good student. But after he was presented with a Soccket, a few days later, he had dismantled the foam-core-based ball and tinkered with its internals so that it would charge his DVD player.
“Ultimately, I want to help people become inventors themselves so they don’t feel they’ve hit a dead end once they’ve had an idea,” says Matthews, who explains that Uncharted Play ultimately could become an incubator for such creators. “But first, we want to build this brand and get our evangelists out there.”
The company has already produced a second and potentially, more universal and versatile energy-generating toy, the Pulse jump rope ($129, also buy one, sponsor one, at unchartedplay.org).
The company’s seven-person team, which includes Matthews’ sister, currently makes the Pulse in-house, using a series of three-dimensional printers perched on the kitchen counter of an apartment-turned-office that boasts a view of lower Manhattan’s new Freedom Tower.
“You can travel easily with Pulse, and after 15 minutes of jumping rope, which is good for you, it will give you six hours of LED light or a 50% iPhone charge,” she says. “In many (emerging countries), often only boys are allowed to play soccer. So this is something girls can use.”
Matthews says Uncharted Play will soon branch out into power-generating skateboards and basketballs before “tackling other social issues soon, like food and water.”
None of this surprises her mother.
“When Jessica was in kindergarten, she told her teacher she wanted to grow up to help people,” says Florence Matthews, who helps her husband, Idoni, run the family software business, Decision Technologies International. “She has so many ideas, when she discusses them with me, I get a headache.”
Matthews says she isn’t surprised that her daughter’s first big idea was Soccket, given that the family often visited relatives in small Nigerian villages powered by foul-smelling kerosene lamps. “To see her helping those people makes me so happy,” she says.
But Jessica casually waves off the kudos. The biggest ideas out there won’t be hers, she insists.
“The biggest issue we have in the world is a supply-of-ideas issue,” says Matthews. “We don’t have enough people engaged in trying to make the world a better place. Our goal is to use play as a tool to disarm those would be intimidated and help inspire invention.”
ABOUT JESSICA O. MATTHEWS, 26
What: Founder, Uncharted Play, which creates toys that generate electricity
Where: New York
How hard was it to develop Soccket? “In some ways, very. The first ball was very heavy. The mechanism was OK, but the kids testing it kept going ow, ow, ow. Then we went to a smaller mechanism and a softer ball, but it would deform in heat. It’s an ongoing thing; we’re always testing. But I think we’re there with this now.”
What keeps people from tackling issues plaguing the Third World? “Three things. Awareness, since most people think there are only huge things like poverty. Creative confidence, because most people just don’t believe their ideas can have an impact. And lack of fun. Social issues are often serious and sad and endemic, but that’s where psychology comes in. It’s the job of companies to design systems that make it easier for people to do good.”
Your parents pushed you and your sister hard; did that contribute to your success? “My mom would watch Oprah and (seeing the guests,) think, ‘My kids can do what these people do as well.’ They never said go work. They said, ‘Your job is to do very well in school and extracurricular activities. And stay away from boys.’ “
USA TODAY’s Change Agents series highlights innovators and entrepreneurs looking to change business and culture with their vision. E-mail Marco della Cava at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter:@marcodellacava.
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