Talk about a brave entrepreneur! Jessica O. Matthews was jumping rope while clad in gold stiletto heels.
Matthews executed some fancy moves, to the delight of audience members at Inc.'s GrowCo conference in Las Vegas on Thursday. She then affixed a pair of large bulbs to the jump rope's handles. "And then you've got light," she said, holding the glowing spheres aloft.
Matthews is the founder and CEO of Uncharted Play, a company dedicated to producing clean power through kinetic energy, which is created whenever something moves. The business has been profitable for the last three years, with gross profit margins doubling year over year. And Matthews is about to close what she called "the largest Series A that any black woman has ever raised."
The idea for Uncharted Play started in Nigeria, where a 17-year-old Matthews--who holds dual United States and Nigerian citizenship--was attending her aunt's wedding. Access to electricity in that country is spotty because the infrastructure is so poor. "The grid can't scale," said Matthews. "They lose power seven times a day."
Sure enough, power failed during the wedding. Out came the diesel generators. Breathing the exhaust, Matthews felt ill. As she coughed and choked on the fumes, her cousins reassured her: Don't worry. You'll get used to it.
"The saddest thing to me," said Matthews, "is that they had gotten used to [the idea of] dying."
Later, while majoring in psychology and economics at Harvard, Matthews was asked to create something that combined art and science for a class project. She recalled her cousins' resignation to a life spent breathing toxic fumes. Then she recalled something else: their energy and exuberance on the soccer field. "I thought, why can't you take a soccer ball that is already in motion and harness the energy that is being generated during play as an off-grid power source?" said Matthews.
Matthews' solution was the Soccket, a ball that uses a micro-generator to produce three hours of light for every hour of play. In 2011 she launched Uncharted Play in New York City and began selling the product to businesses as part of their corporate social responsibility and marketing efforts, as well as to schools and governments. Her next product was an energy-generating jump rope, which had the advantage of being usable inside. "In some of the refugee camps, girls, once they hit the age of 12, aren't allowed to play outside because they are considered too tempting for the boys," said Matthews.
After graduating from Harvard Business School in 2014, Matthews faced a decision: to stay exclusively in the play space or expand applications for her energy-generating technology. She chose the latter. Now she wants to put the company's core technology, called MORE (an acronym for Motion-based Off-grid Renewable Energy), into everything that moves.
Matthews said her goal is "to shift the way we think about energy consumption and generation from a hoard-and-save mentality... to continuous and on-demand." So instead of charging a smartphone, running it down to 10 percent power, and then heading home in a panic to plug it in, users would connect the phone to a baby stroller or a rolling suitcase, charging the phone as they pushed or pulled.
Uncharted Play's business model is to design and manufacture custom micro-generating systems. It will then partner with manufacturers to integrate those systems into products, piggybacking on their customers' supply chains. The company is already developing prototypes of products like the stroller and suitcase (Matthews demonstrated both at the conference). And it is in talks with potential customers, including some from the Fortune 50, she said.
Matthews also addressed some inspirational words to attending entrepreneurs, whom she urged to become "cockroaches" (in other words, un-killable). "The goal is not to envision where you'll be five or 10 years from now," she said. "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."