Entrepreneurs from around the world are combining the childish yet universal impetus for play with a desire to tackle pressing global challenges – such as lack of access to sustainable energy. This lofty and daunting goal is the founding aim of Uncharted Play Inc. (Uncharted Play), a product development enterprise based in New York City, New York, the United States of America (USA).
Uncharted Play was originally created to develop a simple and effective invention: an energy-harnessing football called SOCCKET. The ball harnesses kinetic energy given to itduring play. The energy is consequently transformed into electricity, stored and used to power small electronic devices such as a reading lamp or cellphone.
In addition to SOCCKET, Uncharted Play has created a number of fun but functional products including a skip rope that likewise generates and stores energy for powering simple gadgets. Furthermore, the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) has developed a robust branding, commercialization, financing and partnership strategy and relied on the intellectual property (IP) system to promote and protect its ideas.
The upshot for the SME has been encouraging business results and international recognition as a pioneer for play-based, energy-producing products that are fun, healthy, and educational. Millions of people around the world (especially those living in energy-poor regions), meanwhile, can now access sustainable and affordable off-the-grid energy solutions.
SOCCKET utilizes a generator and a spinning weight and magnet combination to transform kinetic energy (created when the ball is kicked around) into electricity which is stored as charged energy in a battery. After just 15 minutes of play, the ball can generate and store enough energy (a six watt output, as per its first prototype) to power a desk lamp for three hours or charge a cellphone – via a power adapter. Not only is SOCCKET Uncharted Play’s flagship product; this unique and timely invention has the potential to bring light, fun, hope and better living conditions to millions of people who live without access to sustainable energy supplies.
The SOCCKET – a conflation of socket and soccer – was created in 2008 by four junior year liberal arts students, Jessica Matthews, Julia Silverman, Jessica Lin and Hemali Thakkar (the Inventors), at Harvard University (Harvard), Cambridge, the state of Massachusetts, USA. The idea behind the ball occurred during a global health class at Harvard, called “Idea Translation Affecting Change Through Art and Science,” that challenged the Inventors to think of a pressing global issue and suggest a solution based on art and science.
Relying on their experiences in energy-poor regions of the world (Ms. Matthews, for instance, is of Nigerian heritage), the students made two important observations: the prevalence of football as a sport globally; and, the lack of sustainable power for many people around the world. By linking these observations to the idea of harnessing and storing the kinetic energy of a moving ball, which could be relied on later as an energy source, the main idea behind SOCCKET emerged.
The original prototype for SOCCKET was, however, not based on a standard ball; it was a combination of a hamster ball (a ball into which a hamster is placed in order to exercise) and a shake-to-charge torch (where shaking the device allows it to charge and produce light). By rolling the hamster ball around and thereby agitating the torch – which was embedded within the ball, SOCCKET’s creators were hopeful that the device would produce light. It did.
This simple experiment showed that their idea was viable. However, when the Inventors approached engineering students at Harvard regarding the potentially revolutionary football, they were initially received with skepticism. Undeterred, the Inventors – who had no background in engineering – pressed on with what they believed to be a good idea. “It’s incredibly easy to think outside the box when you have no idea what the parameters of the box are,” said Ms. Matthews.
Indeed, the Inventors had to carry out initial research and development (R&D) investigations – via Internet and library-based searches on basic physics and engineering principles – by themselves. Within weeks of creating a prototype, they gained enough knowledge of their idea in order to convince others to join in – including professors, financial grants departments at Harvard (who funded part of the initial R&D process) and friends in the university’s engineering department.
With the support of mentors and peers (and having secured some funds), a year later the Inventors were in a position to begin the next stage of SOCCKET’s development: field tests to establish proof of concept (PoC). To this end, the students travelled to countries in Latin America and Africa, where their invention would likely have the greatest user base and impact, and distributed prototype SOCCKETS to children.
One of the countries visited was the Republic of South Africa (South Africa) – where children played with the ball at a time coinciding with the World Cup (2010), an international football tournament that was held in the country.
During the PoC process, the Inventors received important feedback such as the children’s patterns of play and the variety of environments used – not just clear, grassy areas but also rugged and often wet and muddy or dry and rough playing fields. There were other important lessons learnt from the PoC process and field tests. The ball, for instance, had to be durable (SOCCKET is waterproof in order to survive in the variable environment in which it is used) and affordable (as many of its beneficiaries lived in low income countries). The Inventors therefore ensured that future prototypes did not need to be inflated – inflating requires an air pump and incurs extra, potentially prohibitive costs, while reducing a ball’s shelf life due to the likelihood of a puncture.
Other considerations revealed by the PoC tests included feedback on optimal materials for manufacturing the ball and ideas on product packaging and design (original prototypes were plain, but subsequent productions have the appearance of standard footballs). The R&D process also led to creation of a new product: a portable lamp that a child could plug into the ball in order to help navigate its way home when night falls.
Uncharted Play’s extensive research not only resulted in improvements in SOCCKET’s mechanism (later models relied on an internal gyroscope – a rotating device that can be used to harness the energy of a moving object). The R&D process – which has been intensely user-centered and takes care of the culture and modes of life of potential end-users and customers – fed directly into two of the company’s core principles: Care and Embrace.
“Care” refers to how the company is driven by challenges the Inventors are passionate about – such as solutions combining fun, utility, health, education and both economic and social sustainability. “Embrace,” meanwhile, defines the SME’s focus on amplifying the positive attributes of its end-users’ lives – a love of sport, for instance – rather than dwelling on negative aspects – such as a lack of access to energy supplies.
“Rather than focus on what they lack, you shift and say, well, what they seem to love, though, is soccer [football]. [We] started to realize that no one was paying attention to play, to joy, and to this idea of amplifying this existing, enjoyable behavior to make the world a better place,” said Ms. Matthews
Having completed initial PoC tests, created a viable product, established core business principles, and graduated Harvard, in 2011 two of the Inventors – Ms. Silverman and Ms. Matthews (the rest moved on to do other things) – co-founded Uncharted Play. At the same time, the SME was registered as a Benefit corporation (B corporation) – a corporate form in the USA that allows for-profit entities to prioritize social and environmental impacts in their business development strategy.
A year after establishing Uncharted Play, the entrepreneurs enrolled in Harvard Business School – this experience not only plugged gaps in their business knowledge but also helped them solidify their plans for the company. By 2013, the SME had distributed tens of thousands of SOCCKETS to thousands of children living in power-poor countries around the world including the Federative Republic of Brazil, the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Nigeria), South Africa and Mexico. Early in 2014, Uncharted Play had a small but dedicated team of employees (and a growing portfolio of products) based in Soho, New York.
Securing funds has been a key part of Uncharted Play’s development. However, in the beginning the SME’s founders had to rely not only on Harvard’s grant-giving bodies (the funds received varied between US$5,000 and US$10,000); they also relied on financing and support from angel investors – informal funders such as family and friends.
Going forward, Uncharted Play relied on seed funding – which is typically sought by pre-revenue companies in order to finance key development – and partnered with private and public sector entities, such as not-for-profit organizations (NPOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The company also leveraged crowd sourcing platforms in order to raise funds.
An early supporter of Uncharted Play, in 2009 the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), an NPO established by former president of the USA Bill Clinton, provided funds (US$400,000 divided among 78 winners, including Uncharted Play) to help develop prototype SOCCKETS.
The SME, moreover, used Internet-based crowd sourcing platforms such as Kickstarter, an NPO that facilitates funding for small projects, and Fundable, a crowd funding organization that works with small business. Via these platforms, Uncharted Play was able to raise approximately US$100,000 and US$500,000, respectively.
In addition to partnering with NPOs and crowd funding facilitators, Uncharted Play has sought corporate sponsors for its projects. For instance, the SME’s founders each received US$50,000 from the Toyota Driving Solutions Grant – part of the “Mothers of Invention” award (2012), sponsored by Toyota Motor Sales (Toyota), an international car manufacturer.
While securing important financing, Uncharted Play has developed fun but functional brands and products (apart from SOCCKET) that ensure the company’s corporate image in a niche market within the sustainable energy sector. At the same time, the SME has branded itself as a pro-education, pro-health and pro-social development enterprise that collaborates with corporate partners and others, such as government and NGOs/NPOs, in order to improve livelihoods.
One of Uncharted Play’s most recognizable products, LUDO – a cross between the Latin word for “play” and “to give” – is a ball similar to SOCCKET that has a computer chip (instead of a gyroscopic mechanism) embedded within it; the chip monitors a user’s duration of play. After playing with LUDO, a user can upload the data stored in the chip – known as play units (PUs) – to the SME’s specialized fundraising website: the Play Fund.
PUs can be redeemed into monetary donations through the Play Fund (the expenses are covered by the price of LUDO itself and via corporate sponsors), to projects supported by Uncharted Play – providing school supplies such as books and desks and medicines including vaccines, for example. Via SOCCKET, LUDO and others brands (including PULSE, an energy-harnessing skipping rope that is also a charger), Uncharted Play has imaginatively promoted a fun and functional corporate identity that allows users to enjoy themselves while supporting important social causes.
As Ms. Silverman said, “There’s a common belief [that] the only way you can give is financially, and that’s absolutely false. Even as a kid, you can play, you can give, you can have beneficial actions in your community, and I think [our products are] just a very tangible representation of that.” Indeed, the SME’s ethos of empowering, giving and playing is captured in a company slogan: “Play. Power. Give.”
Further to product branding for a niche market, the SME has developed its corporate identity and market reach via strategic co-branding collaborations with industry partners. To this end, Uncharted Play has partnered with American Express Company (American Express), an international financial services provider, and Take Part, a digital media organization that facilitates social entrepreneurship and activism.
Via the Members Project, an online initiative by American Express and Take Part, customers can earn points – by volunteering for a given organization, such as Uncharted Play – that can be redeemed as a financial donation. Uncharted Play has relied, in part, on the Members Project to fund a range of portable power kits (a SOCCKET ball and 10 portable lamps) which have been donated (with the help of carefully selected NGOs) freely to schools and community centers worldwide.
Not only can corporate sponsors and supporters such as American Express help raise funds for Uncharted Play’s projects; such organizations and business can attach their brands to the SME’s products as part of a broader co-branding strategy.
Creating imaginative products and partnering with the private and non-profit sector is not the only way Uncharted Play has enhanced its brand; the SME has relied on celebrity endorsements (by musicians and sports stars) while both Ms. Silverman and Ms. Matthews have increased the company’s public profile via appearances on TV and other media and forums.
As well as giving interviews via established news networks, for example, the SME’s co-founders have promoted the brand via cutting edge platforms such as TEDx, an independently managed international conference for entrepreneurs that is modelled on Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED), an NPO that gathers some of the world’s leading innovators in an annual meeting.
Due to its robust branding, co-branding and promotional activities, in 2014 Uncharted Play was making headlines around the world. The SME’s corporate identity and products, moreover, were in a strong position to see positive growth globally.
With increasing brand equity around the world, Uncharted Play has developed a number of commercialization models to ensure its products reach as many customers and end-users as possible. Via a buy-one-give-one-free (BYGOF) scheme, for instance, customers living in high income countries, such as the USA, effectively donate a SOCCKET to a user in developing country, such as Mexico or Nigeria, when they purchase one of the SME’s footballs.
In support of the BYGOF model (where the price of a purchased product is calculated so as to off-set the price of a free one), the company has collaborated with private and public partners (as well as NGOs and NPOs) to facilitate wholesale distribution of its products. In 2012, for instance, Uncharted Play was able to leverage the support of State Farm Insurance, a financial services company in the USA, and Fundacion Televia, and NGO based in Mexico, in order to distribute hundreds of SOCCKETS freely to power- poor communities in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Working with corporate sponsors and others to distribute its products, Uncharted Play has also developed an e-commerce website where products such as SOCCKET and PULSE and a variety of accessories (including branded socks and t-shirts) can be purchased. As of 2014, the SME was looking to grow its commercialization opportunities via expansion of its products portfolio (energy harnessing bicycles, skateboards, American footballs and even a basketball were being created) and development of distribution channels – in collaboration with retail partners.
Since the beginning, Uncharted Play’s founders have been keenly aware of the benefits that can accrue from protecting their ideas, brands and corporate identity via the intellectual property (IP) system. “Our ideas are often all that set us apart from large conglomerates,” Ms. Matthews said, “and we wouldn’t be able to position ourselves as a viable organization if we didn’t have protection for these ideas via patents and trademarks.”
To this end, the SME registered a service mark for SOCCKET (2011) in one of its potentially lucrative markets, the USA, via the United States Trademark and Patent Office (USPTO). In addition to securing its flagship brand, the company filed for a patent for an “energy storing device and method of using the same” in August 2012 with the USPTO. To broaden protection of the invention, the USPTO application was used as a basis for an international application subsequently filed via the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system, managed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
Further to protecting its ideas and brands, the SME has ensured its corporate identity and avenues for future expansion on the Internet via domain name registrations. In 2014, Uncharted Play had registered unchartedplay.com as its online corporate presence.
Robustly protecting the company’s IP assets, the SME’s young founders demonstrate how a corporate enterprise can ensure its future avenues for expansion while also championing both social and ecological goals. As David Kappos, then-Director, USPTO said, “[…] in order for cutting edge ideas [such as SOCCKET] to get to the marketplace in time to address social needs, and in order for businesses to sustain themselves, strong intellectual property protection is critical.”
In the early 21st Century, billions of people around the world – approximately 1 in 4 – were living under conditions of energy-poverty – defined as a lack of access to electricity (“World Energy Outloook (WEO)”, 2010, a report by the International Energy Authority; United Nations Development Programme; and, United Nations International Development Organization). At the same time, the number of people relying on traditional biomass-based methods to provide fuel – such as a three-stone fire stove and coal (for cooking) and kerosene lamps (for light) – was set to increase: from 1.7 billion in 2010 to 2.8 billion people in 2030 (WEO, 2010).
As energy poverty harms both the environment and public health (kerosene stoves cause both environmental and household air pollution that leads to ill health; WEO, 2010), governments, international bodies and enterprises including Uncharted Play have worked on providing sustainable, alternative solutions. Any such solutions, moreover, have been designed with affordability in mind – as the evidence shows that lack of access to energy is correlated with low per capita incomes. A person living on less than US$2 a day, for instance, is more likely to be energy-poor and reliant on inefficient biomass technologies for fuel and household appliances (WEO, 2010).
Uncharted Play’s timely products are designed to increase power access to energy-poor regions of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa – where the electrification rate, the percentage of households with an access point to the electric grid, is as low as 31 percent (WEO, 2010). The SME’s products, furthermore, are expected to reduce reliance on comparatively expensive and unhealthy household energy alternatives (coal stoves or kerosene lamps) – the latter is thought to cause 1.4 million annual deaths, often of children, due to household pollution and related illnesses (World Health Organization estimates, 2011).
Providing healthy and cost-effective energy alternatives, the company’s products also actively enhance a user’s health via the power of play while increasing interest in education, especially within science, technology and mathematics (STEM) subjects – an idea that the SME’s founders are passionate about. Uncharted Play, for instance, has worked with specialist partner organizations such as ChildFund International (ChildFund), an international development agency with a focus on children’s health and education, and Fundación Televisa, a social development organization based in Álvaro Obregón, Mexico.
Via this collaboration, SOCCKETS have been donated to children in energy-poor communities in Yohualichan, Puebla, Mexico, where it is already making a noticeable impact. As one child, a resident of Yohualichan, said: “With the [SOCCKET] we can do our homework […] but before, we had to use candlelight.” “By working with ChildFund,” Ms. Matthews added, “we were able to find out [that] within the first month [of] using sOcckket, we were able to decrease the use of fossil fuels by 40 percent. So this is just one city, one town, one community, in one country.”
The energy-harnessing ball, moreover, provides more than just fun and light in this and other regions; it is enhancing the lives of people and encouraging interest in STEM education – both ChildFund and Fundación Televisa have implemented sustainable energy education programs in Mexico that were, in part, inspired by SOCCKET. As of 2014, Uncharted Play was developing an eco-friendly portable generator – the company hopes this appliance will lead to better everyday living conditions as more households move away from using biomass-based fuel and devices.
Uncharted Play began as an idea in a classroom that slowly developed into company with an imaginative development strategy that is also making positive social and ecological impacts. In the process, the SME and its founders have met with business success and become winners of multiple awards.
The SOCCKET, for instance, won the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award – Next Generation Award (2010), the Elle Gold Awards (2010), and the Good Housekeeping Shine On Award for Innovation (2011).
Ms. Matthews and Ms. Silverman, meanwhile, won Harvard’s Scientists of the Year (2011) award – a noteworthy recognition from their mentors and peers. In the same year, Uncharted Play reported revenues of approximately US$2 million. Two years later, the SME was among the 25 Most Audacious Companies (2013), an award by Inc. Magazine.
Play is a universal activity that has the ability to connect different parts of the world. By tapping into it, Uncharted Play is breaking new ground and creating a space where fun and business cam merged seamlessly with social and environmental challenges. In so doing, the small and medium-sized enterprise is spreading light, hope and improved living conditions to ever increasing numbers of people around the world.
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Date of publication: May 28, 2014