Soccer Balls Power the Developing World

by jill sieracki | March 13, 2013 | Home Page

What started as an engineering project for Julia Silverman and Jessica Matthews’s “Idea Translation: Affecting Change Through Art and Science” course at Harvard University has developed into a new technology that turns a soccer ball’s kinetic energy into a light source.

The Soccket, a uniquely durable soccer ball assembled in the United States translates play time into hours of power for an LED lamp plug-in. Since its introduction, Silverman and Matthews have been featured everywhere from a Best Buy commercial to a Clinton Global Initiative panel. “When you have people at that level also embracing what you’re doing, it gives you even more confidence,” says Silverman. “After getting stared in the face by engineers for so long saying, ‘What you’re doing does not make sense, What you’re doing isn’t worthwhile,’ it’s nice to have a little validation.”

In May 2011 Matthews and Silverman cofounded Uncharted Play as a means for companies such as Western Union and State Farm to help sustainably pilot test their power-generating soccer ball in countries such as Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa.

This year, the organization is launching the Ludo (Latin for “I play”), aimed at domestic audiences. Users redeem play minutes on Uncharted Play’s online Play Fund for services with charity partners such as EarthSpark International, another group focusing on energy poverty in Haiti. “We want to maximize our impact to make sure we’re helping as many people as possible,” says Matthews. “What we do well is understanding how to package real issues in meaningful but palatable ways. With the Play Fund, it’s about us finding great organizations and great projects that are doing amazing things around the world.”

Silverman and Matthews’s big-picture aim is to eradicate energy poverty worldwide. Right now, they are working to increase their funding, which up until now has been provided through grants from companies such as Toyota, corporate donations, and private investments. “We launched Uncharted Play to be able to mass-produce the Soccket,” says Silverman. “Then we became very dedicated to, what does a company that produces this product need to be? We’ve since come to this really satisfying and fun place, which is that we’re not a sports company, we’re not an energy company; we’re an innovation company that’s dealing in impact and meaningful change.”

Both Silverman and Matthews are still students at Harvard. Matthews’s family immigrated to America from Nigeria; Silverman studied culture and economics in Sub-Saharan Africa. In their research, they discovered that 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and using kerosene lanterns indoors is a common, if not deadly, alternative. “I don’t think it needs to be this ‘lightbulb’ for people to want to be a social innovator,” says Matthews. “[Our idea was] what can we design that amplifies existing behavior in a way that actually leads to real impact?”

In the beginning, many engineers said the Soccket’s design wasn’t possible. It was Uncharted Play’s now vice president of product development, Victor Angel, who started with the organization as an intern fresh out of college, who said yes. “I describe him as a head up engineer,” says Matthews. “Head up engineers are the kind of people who have the skill, are willing to be really flexible, and most importantly they will take the time to look up from their tinkering to look at the world and see who will be using their product. Our generator may not be the most efficient generator on the market, but the fact that it is the most fun one really means something, and it can make someone’s life significantly better.”

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photography by Seth Olenick (ball, matthews)

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