Bright idea: Powering lights through soccer
New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin isn't the only recent Harvard graduate whose achievements are garnering global attention. Jessica Matthews and Julia Silverman, both 2010 classmates of Lin's, have tapped into one of the world's most abundant natural resources -- the desire to play -- in creating an electricity-generating soccer ball that offers a genuinely fun solution to a serious human problem.
Matthews and Silverman's invention, the sOccket, was born out of their desire to address the lack of access to energy in developing nations by harnessing the power of a game played the world over. The success of the sOccket ball and Uncharted Play, the company they founded in order to develop and distribute it, earned Matthews and Silverman a featured spot in this past weekend's Women in the World summit, a prestigious annual conference in New York whose high-wattage participants included Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano and Angelina Jolie.
"We're onstage right after Nancy Pelosi," said Silverman, who appeared with Matthews as part of the Toyota-sponsored Mothers of Invention panel. "To be in the same section of something as Nancy Pelosi is really cool."
Her giddiness about the Pelosi proximity was one of the few indications that the otherwise polished and exceedingly self-possessed Silverman is just 23. When she and Matthews, 24, decided last May to "commit ourselves entirely to producing and developing this amazing invention to communities that need it worldwide," they quit their full-time jobs and started up Uncharted Play, which has offices near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Silverman telecommutes -- and, often, commutes -- from Boston, where she and Matthews will both begin Harvard's MBA program in the fall.
The sOccket idea was born at Harvard in the fall of 2008, when Matthews and Silverman enrolled in an undergraduate engineering class whose premise was idea translation -- "making science more artistic and art more scientific," as Silverman, a social anthropology and economics major, put it. Silverman, who had spent the previous summer researching HIV/AIDS in Tanzania and South Africa, and Matthews, who is of Nigerian descent and has spent significant time there, were grouped with two other liberal arts students who shared a first-hand knowledge of life in disadvantaged communities and had a desire to use the class to address a legitimate human need as opposed to a frivolous desire.
"We were very focused on solutions for the end user anywhere, not just someone who has an iPhone," Silverman said. "We weren't going to develop an app."
Their professor nixed their first idea, for improving medical record-keeping in developing countries, because he wanted them to find a solution they could implement without the assistance of governmental bureaucracies. So they started to think about another need -- the need for access to electricity -- and looked to pair it with an existing resource that was readily available in the regions experiencing that need. A passion for soccer, the young women had observed, is universal -- even if soccer balls themselves are harder to come by (Silverman, who was a three-sport athlete in high school, said she has seen children in sub-Saharan Africa playing the game with bundled plastic bags, a shoe or even a brick). So, the students figured, why not devise a way to convert the kinetic energy generated, naturally and happily, through soccer into precious electricity?
For a first pass, the women stuck a shake-to-charge flashlight inside a hamster ball, crossed their fingers, and started kicking the ball around. After a while, they opened the ball, took out the flashlight, and yes, it turned on. Kicking the ball had shaken the flashlight enough to power it. They were onto something. So they brought their nascent idea (and their hamster ball) to their engineering friends, whose response was one of skepticism and derision.
"They were like, 'I don't care what your hamster ball says, this isn't enough,'" recalled Silverman. "They're so entrenched in the engineering box that they're thinking 'enough' means you have to be able to power an aircraft carrier. So, in this case, our lack of engineering experience was an asset, because we didn't know where the limits were, and so we could think more creatively and freely."
Unburdened by the expectations that were constraining the engineering geeks, the group pushed forward, replacing the hamster ball with a soccer ball and adding a headphone jack through which the kinetic energy of the ball could be exported. Less than two years after the brainchild was born, Matthews and Silverman took an early sOccket prototype to the men's World Cup in South Africa, where it was well received. Today, the latest sOccket (the name is a hybrid of "soccer" and "socket") weighs only five ounces more than a regulation soccer ball and holds enough energy after just 30 minutes of play to power an LED lamp for three hours. That's a significant amount of time away from kerosene lamps, which present serious environmental, economic and health perils, but are ubiquitous in the sub-Sahara.
Matthews and Silverman are seeking funding so they can place sOcckets, and the lamps that accompany them, with hundreds of thousands of people around the world. (Plans for soccer-powered water purifiers and cell phone chargers are also in Uncharted Play's pipeline.) But while Silverman acknowledges that bringing the sOccket to scale is an important priority, particularly given its potential to replace kerosene in the home, the ball's value derives largely from its capacity to spark new ways of thinking about the world's gravest problems.
"The broader goal of the company is to combine fun and function, to really encourage people to think of play in new and exciting ways," she said. "Just because we get older doesn't mean we have to stop playing, and just because we need important things in our life, like electricity, doesn't mean that we have to be serious when we do it."
For more on sOccket's story, watch this video: