sOccket to Me!

Innovation in the cleantech arena often entails combining inarguable facts in strange ways.  Consider these apparently-unrelated truths:

  • Much of the developing world lacks access to electricity.
  • Fertility rates in the developing world are typically much higher than in the developed world.
  • There are few things with more untapped energy than a young child.
  • Children around the world love to play soccer.

Combine these four observations and, voila, you have the basis for sOccket.

sOccket (I can’t claim to understand why the “O” is capitalized and the “S” isn’t) is a soccer ball with a device inside that generates electricity as the ball rolls and stores the electricity so that lights or other small appliances can later be plugged into it and operated.

You would think that such a ball would produce a miniscule amount of electricity – so little that it wouldn’t seem to offer much benefit to anyone.  However, with the dramatic decline in energy consumption for lighting due to LED technology, 30 minutes of play with the ball produces enough power to run a small lamp for 3 hours.  In rural villages in the developing world, this can be the difference between a child learning to read or not, or an adult generating an income from making a sellable item or not.

Although not the first or only product aiming to convert human kinetic energy into stored electricity for later use – see, for instance, the nPowerPEG developed by Cleveland-based Tremont Electric – this sOccket ball is an almost irresistibly attractive idea.

I say “almost”.  In my view, there is one fly in the ointment for sOccket, something that will inhibit it from reaching massive scale:  there is a disconnect between the customer who pays for the product and the user who benefits from the product.  Naturally, this stems from the fact that the user – that child in Kenya or Bangladesh – has no cash to buy the ball.

The business model is essentially charity:  someone from the developed world who has access to the Internet buys a sOccket ball with a credit card, and the ball is then distributed through a local NGO operating in-country to a worthy child.  In other words, a customer buys the sOccket ball for psychic value, not because he/she actually uses the ball and gains any tangible benefit. 

There is no doubt a market segment of consumers with these preferences.  I wish I were less cynical and could say that I think this is a sizable segment that could lead to a very large and lucrative business.  But, I’m not. and I don’t.  And, I think many other private sector providers of capital would feel the same way.  So, I suspect that sOccket will not get a lot of outside capital to support its potential growth.

Maybe the sOccket team can work miracles solely by bootstrapping.  Clearly, the inventors of the sOccket have demonstrated extraordinary creativity in connecting several disparate dots to come up with an innovative solution to an unmet need.  It’s an excellent case study and inspiration for other cleantech entrepreneurs to reflect upon.  In particular, it reveals that cleantech innovation needn’t involve a radically disruptive breakthrough technology.  And, hopefully, given the “out-of-the-box” thinking that the sOccket team has exhibited to get as far as they have, maybe they will invent a business model that is more scalable than what I think they are currently pursuing — which could in turn be lucrative for the founders. 

I’m guessing that, if they were able to produce a multi-million dollar pay-day for themselves, the entrepreneurs who founded sOccket would find good uses for their newfound wealth – just as the first inklings of wealth, enabled by electricity generated by sOccket, can help lift untold numbers of desperately poor people worldwide out of poverty and towards (if not immediately fully into) the 21st Century.

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