By Chris Olsen
The sharp smell of diesel fuel swirled through the air. 17-year-old Jessica Matthews began coughing and choking as the purply-gray exhaust filled her nose and lungs. She was at her aunt’s wedding in Nigeria, celebrating and having a wonderful time. But the electricity had gone out and the backup diesel generator had just kicked in. It didn’t seem to bother her cousins who had grown up there and were accustomed to losing power several times a day. They told Jessica she’d get used to the smell. A dual citizen who’d been raised in the United States, she was astonished that her family in Nigeria had learned to live with the toxic fumes. As she struggled to breathe, Jessica knew there had to be a better way to generate power.
A few years later, as a junior at Harvard, Jessica was challenged to invent something for an engineering class project. She and her classmate, Julia Silverman, began brainstorming ideas. Jessica thought back to the marriage celebration she attended in Nigeria and her cousins’ love of soccer. She wondered if it would be possible to create a portable generator from a soccer ball. She and Julia got to work, considering all the ways they could harness energy from a ball in motion to create an eco-friendly source of power.
The result of that class project was the Soccket, a soccer ball with a microgenerator inside. For every 30 minutes the ball is in motion, the Soccket produces three hours of light via an attachable LED. Jessica knew the invention could be life-changing for anyone without access to electricity and for those who live with recurring outages, like her family in Nigeria. In 2011, she officially launched her company, which she initially called Uncharted Play. People of all ages embraced the Soccket, including former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Jessica also developed a jump rope and skateboard that generate energy when in motion.
To date, more than a half-million Socckets soccer balls and Pulse jump ropes have been used as alternate power sources in developing regions—primarily in Africa and Latin America. But Jessica’s vision has always been bigger. Early on, she realized the potential of her company’s trademarked technology, which she calls Motion-based Off-grid Renewable Energy (MORE). Beyond toys and sporting goods, her company integrates microgenerators into various infrastructures, objects and products like turnstiles, shopping carts, strollers—anything that moves. She is dedicated to shifting mindset about how energy is consumed, from a cycle of draining and charging a battery, to continuous generation of energy that can be tapped into on demand.
In 2016, Jessica changed her tech company’s name to Uncharted Power. She moved the company’s headquarters and manufacturing to Harlem, New York. At the same time, she created a non-profit arm, the Harlem Tech Fund (HTF), which is dedicated to supporting 100 local startups and providing technology training to 10,000 area residents by 2021.
Jessica also raised $7 million in funding for her company, which is unprecedented for an African-American female founder. She has developed successful partnerships with experienced manufacturers to create a wide range of energy-generating products that power and empower communities worldwide. She is committed to impacting global infrastructure as well and played a key role in developing one of the first privatized hydroelectric dams in Nigeria.
While Uncharted Power continues to experience exponential growth, Jessica’s approach to business is pragmatic. “The goal is not to envision where you’ll be five or 10 years from now. The goal is to envision what you’d like to get done tomorrow. And after a while you have 300 tomorrows, 600 tomorrows, 10,000 tomorrows. And all of a sudden, you are master of your domain.”
To learn more about Jessica’s business, visit u-pwr.co.
Photo: Uncharted Power
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support women-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story and Publish Her as platforms for doing so.