Indeed, both of Uncharted Play’s founders say the work they want to do with children around the world — proving that something to play with also has practical uses in homes without access to an electrical grid — won’t be possible if they aren’t profitable. “To sustain support, we have to be seen as a serious business,” says Matthews, 24.
All right then; let’s get serious. First, does the Soccket work well enough for investors to back it with millions of dollars? To be sure, the reason Popular Mechanics praised it in 2010 was that the design is brilliantly simple. Inside the Soccket, a gyroscope moves whenever the ball rolls. That movement generates electricity. It’s the same way you get power in one of those flashlights that you have to shake. Kick the Soccket for just 30 minutes, and you get enough power to run an LED lamp for three hours. The light plugs into a DC jack that’s stored inside the ball.
Still, even the simplest designs aren’t without their challenges. Early prototypes were either so heavy they were hard to kick or so weak they deflated after a lot of use. Those prototypes were also extremely expensive: Depending on the manufacturer, it cost anywhere from $150 to $600 to make just one. But Matthews and Silverman are now selling investors on the current Soccket design, which can be donated for just $60. Uncharted Play hopes to be able to produce that design for much less. The new version is also water-resistant, will never deflate, and it weighs just a few ounces more than a regulation FIFA ball.
Now, who wants to buy one? Actually, Uncharted Play says lots of corporate sponsors want to buy more than one — they want thousands. Last year, for example, State Farm spread Socckets throughout Latin America, where about seven percent of the population has no electricity.
Matthews and Silverman say that type of corporate purchase will be one of their main revenue streams. One of the others is, well, maybe you. In the not-so-distant future, anyone in the U.S. should be able to order a Soccket. And Matthews is convinced there is domestic demand for a slightly electrified soccer ball. “The number of people in this country over the past two and a half years who have told me they want a Soccket proves that,” she says.
And as for the need in Nigeria — where Matthews has roots — she won’t need to do any convincing. The World Bank estimates that nearly 600 million Africans don’t have access to electricity. What’s worse is that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. It would take an investment of approximately $11 billion a year between now and 2030 to get everyone in sub-Saharan Africa onto an electrical power grid, according to the World Bank. Southern portions of Asia have a similar lack of electricity. In many of those areas, schoolchildren do homework at night in the faint glow of a kerosene lamp or one that burns yak butter.
Of course, a little LED lamp with a three-hour charge isn’t going to light a village. But that’s OK with Matthews. “A final, comprehensive solution on electricity needs is hard to come up with,” she says. “But we can help people have a positive outlook, which means we can make a difference immediately rather than waiting for a larger solution that may never occur.”
The bottom line for this corporation is this: If Uncharted Play can get enough corporate sponsors and individuals to give thousands of kids around the world an outlet for play, for power and for thinking about their future in an entirely different way, then that kitschy gadget they are selling really is magic.
Frequent American Way contributor JOSEPH GUINTO is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.