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 sibling – and she wears him as a badge of honor.
“I’m kidding now that I was always trying to be the perfect balance between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beyoncé,” Matthews told Business Insider. “I’m still trying to do it right now. “
Matthews is the founder of Uncharted Play, a company that manufactures kinetic energy products in order to “democratize access to energy throughout the world”.
Uncharted Play first made headlines for its gas-guzzling soccer ball, called the Soccket, which could power a lamp after a few hours of play. But the company recently made a big pivot, raised a Series A, and moved on. in a new office, which is part of what Matthews calls “phase three”.
“They were the ones telling me to basically get used to dying”
Matthews has dual Nigerian and American citizenship. He grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, before studying at Harvard. It was during his undergraduate years that the idea for what is now Uncharted Play was born.
The idea arose from an experience she had during her aunt’s wedding in Nigeria. During the party, the power was cut and the diesel generators were taken out. It was a reality in Nigeria due to an unstable energy supply, Matthews said. ButThe fumes from the generators bothered Matthews, and she told those around her.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,'” Matthews said. “I remember it bothered me so much because they were the ones telling me to get used to dying. But what was even sadder for me was that it was very clear that this was what to do. which they had become accustomed to. “
Matthews wanted to offer an alternative to diesel generators that was reliable and provided cleaner energy. Because his relatives and friends in Nigeria were football fans, the idea of an energy-harnessing soccer ball was natural.
The Soccket made its debut with great success. The kids were already playing with soccer balls every day, but it could provide enough light to help them with their homework after dark. 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. companies that distributed them to impoverished communities. The company also invented a jump rope, called Pulse, around a similar concept.
But not everything went as planned. According to a story by Jennifer Collins of Public Radio International, the Soccket had major manufacturing issues. Collins traveled to a rural Mexican town where children were receiving the bullets and found most of them broke, sometimes as quickly as three days after they were received. The balls were to last three years.
In 2014, Uncharted Play wrote an article on its Soccket Kickstarter page. The post details balloon manufacturing issues, shipping issues that prevented those who donated from even receiving a balloon, and general product quality control issues.
The message was blunt: “In short, we totally screwed up this Kickstarter campaign,” the company wrote. “We could not be more sincerely sorry for everything that has happened with this campaign.”
While Matthews won’t directly address the Soccket’s early shortcomings, she did acknowledge that Uncharted Play needed to change 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 team up? “
“We are in the game now”
The change came after Matthews graduated from Harvard Business School. That’s when the business entered its third phase, she says.
“I was at the point where I needed to change a lot of things,” Matthews said. “I’m like ‘I can’t be ignorant anymore.’ I know what it takes to build a continuous and sustainable business, and there has to be changes. That’s when we started doing a holistic analysis of, what is our real competitive advantage? what sets Uncharted Play apart? ”
This thing, she realized, was the technology that actually went into the soccer ball and skipping rope, which the company named “MORE” – Off-grid renewable energy based on motion. Uncharted Play decided to pivot and began approaching business partners who could install MORE technology in their existing products. The soccer ball and pulse are now what Matthews calls the company’s “legacy products”.
While Matthews won’t give specific company names, she said the technology can be installed in anything from baby strollers and furniture to floor panels, anything that can exploit the 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 business is profitable. Uncharted Play has just moved to a new office in Harlem – a move Matthews hopes will help his employees “see more of the world” and create more meaningful products.
The company also recently raised a $ 7 million Series A round, which Matthews says is the biggest amount ever raised by a woman of color.
“The average amount that a black woman will raise in her lifetime is $ 34,000,” Matthews said. “We raised $ 7 million – the average Series A that people throw up. And by people I mean white, straight men. Why is that exciting? We’re in the game now. on an equal level like the people looking at me in front of me in Silicon Valley. “