CONVERSATIONS WITH MICK EBELING
Film producer. Philanthropist. Trailblazer. And now, ISPA Keynote Speaker.
Mick Ebeling’s endless curiosity and belief in solving impossible problems led him to create Not Impossible Labs, an innovative tech and storytelling incubator. Through Not Impossible, Mick has helped the deaf hear music, 3D-printed prosthetics for Sudanese war refugees and enabled a paraplegic artist to draw again using only his eyes.
Ahead of his keynote address on the final day of the 2019 ISPA Conference & Expo, Pulse caught up with Ebeling to discuss Not Impossible, his problemsolving approach and his advice for entrepreneurs.
Pulse: You came from the world of film production; what drew you to founding Not Impossible Labs?
Mick Ebeling: Not Impossible Labs began because we were introduced to a paralyzed graffiti artist named Tony “TEMPT” Quan, and after quickly learning his story, we realized he was lying motionless in a bed for the previous seven years. He was unable to communicate, unable to speak and talk to his family or friends unless through a piece of paper with the alphabet written on it called a Letter Board. We found that to be just absurd that it was the solution that existed in this day and age, where there’s abundant technology solving all kinds of problems around the world. That a simple communication device, that we knew existed, wasn’t accessible for this one guy to have, because he didn’t have health insurance or money.
We became outraged. We were outraged by that injustice and said, “We have to change that.” So, we just started working, and we built a device for him. A device that ended up being called the EyeWriter, that was made of cheap sunglasses, zip ties, duct tape and a web camera with some really smart code. It allowed him to communicate and draw again for the first time in seven years with just his eyes.
That act of doing that one thing, for that one person, was the launching point of Not Impossible Labs. We realized the power of trying to change the world for one person, could actually change the world for so many people—so we released all of the plans and schematics online so now anyone in the world could build an EyeWriter.
P: What did it mean to you personally to work on that project?
E: For us, it was everything. It was the genesis of who we are, what we stand for—to see something that’s absurd from a human standpoint and then say, “that’s not right. I’m going to go change that.” Then we go out and we convene teams of brilliant mad-scientists and misfit geniuses. We come together and we solve that problem. We solve that absurdity and make it accessible for people.
P: Not Impossible Labs creates “technology for the sake of humanity”. What does that mission mean to you?
E: Albert Camus has a quote... “The absurd is borne out of confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world”. The mission of Not Impossible is about seeing these human needs, these absurdities that just exist and saying, “I’m not going to be silent anymore. I’m going to actually go and do something” or, “I’m going to try my best to try to figure this out and change the world for one person.”
P: As a storyteller, how do you use your craft to change the world?
E: We don’t come from infinite resources. We come from a background of people who just get stuff done and because of that, we have to use the tools that we have in front of us. Storytelling is incredibly important to us because that’s what actually gives people the opportunity to experience the solutions we’ve created. It lets them relate to those stories, and see those stories, and be able to say, “Hey, I actually can use that for my loved one,” or “I know someone who could actually benefit from this.”
P: Questioning the status quo seems to be a big part of Not Impossible Labs’ philosophy. Have you always been someone who has challenged the status quo?
E: You would have to ask my mom, but I’m sure she will tell you that I wasn’t just accepting [of] the status quo, just because that’s the way it’s supposed to be or that it’s always been. In fact, if you ask my kids the question, “what are rules for?” they will all answer in their own unique interpretation, “rules are for breaking, but not for following.”
P: Do you have a particular framework, mindset or approach for problem solving?
E: One of the things I write about in my book is just this. We have a three-pronged approach on how we look at problem solving. One is to look at every problem with “beautiful, limitless naiveté.” Two is to “find your one.” And three is to “commit and then figure it out.”
“Beautiful Limitless Naiveté” is the fact that if you’re not inhibited by the past telling you what can and cannot be done… you look at things from a completely unique perspective. An unencumbered perspective. That provides a lot of strategic advantage toward coming up with something that is going to be a unique approach towards solving a problem, especially a social issue.
“Find your one” is part of our principle of “help one, help many.” We don’t believe you start by trying to solve for many. We believe that you start [by] trying to solve for one person. Once you’ve helped that one person, and solved that one problem or that one absurdity, you powerfully use that motivation to effect real change.
Lastly, to “commit and figure it out” is just our ethos. That’s how we live, it’s how we breath. It’s how we approach everything… it’s better for us to start than to get all of our ducks in a row, get everything setup and go through the whole process, and have a backdoor ‘out’ in case none of those things line up. It’s a far more powerful way to operate than to say, “I’m going to do it,” and then go through the process of figuring out how to make sure that you actually pull it off.
P: What project are you working on now that excites you the most?
E: I just can’t choose one project over another! I think that we’ve been incredibly blessed recently on being able to crack the code on so many things. From a device that helps the deaf experience music using their skin as an eardrum (Music: Not Impossible), creating a device that is able to help people with Parkinson’s (VibroHealth), to having created an innovative new personal mobility vehicle (The Kelli Chair).
Last but not least, we [are] repulsed by the absurdity of hunger in this country […] We have a solution called Hunger: Not Impossible that is able to feed people who live in a food-insecure environment through the one thing that most people on this planet have in common: a cellphone. We use that as a device that gives them the ability to get food that is geo-proximate to them, much like an Uber or Lyft. There’s just too many things that we’re working on right now, that are too important for the planet, for us to say “this is the one thing that we love and are working on.”
P: The spa industry is full of business owners and entrepreneurs. Do you have any advice for them?
E: Yeah. I think that what makes small business owners and entrepreneurs special is that they’re just wired with the belief that they can achieve something, or change something, or do something that has [never] been taught to them. It’s something that is hardwired within them. When you harness that power, and that potential, that is a lightning rod to creating change.
In terms of advice, continue believing that nothing is outside your reach, that you truly do have the potential to do anything. You just have to believe it first, and then start executing on that belief!