CXO

Mick Ebeling: Tech Entrepreneur. Globe Trotter. Tenacious Do-Gooder.

Mick Ebeling, founder of Not Impossible Labs, talked to TechRepublic about his crowdfunding platform for healthcare projects and his determination to better the world with technology.

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Mick Ebeling teaches men in Sudan how to use a 3D printer to make affordable prosthetics.
Image: Not Impossible Labs

Don't tell Mick Ebeling that something is impossible. Or do. Either way, it's a sure-fire way to make him consider it for his next project. The entrepreneur works diligently and passionately to solve seemingly unsolvable problems, and he will tell you why quite matter-of-factly. He wants to change lives, and he doesn't like being told he can't do it.

Ebeling is the founder of Not Impossible Labs, an organization and web platform that utilizes the creativity of a community of makers and hackers to crowd-solve previously insurmountable issues in health care and other industries. It's a research firm that uses low-cost materials and processes and open source software to find solutions.

"The philosophy of Not Impossible is to create solutions that will accomplish real social needs in the world, but not fall prey to the whims and trends of social giving," Ebeling said.

Not Impossible is also its own crowdsourcing platform based on Ebeling's vision is to crowdsource ideas, talent, and resources in addition to money to solve problems. He firmly believes in crowdsourcing and the way it is bringing the power back to the people, he said.

In 2009, Ebeling created the Eyewriter for Tempt One, a grafitti artist diagnosed with ALS. By tracking his eye movements, the artist was able to draw again after seven years of immobility. Time named the Eyewriter one of its top 50 inventions of 2010. Now, his team is working on the Brainwriter, a version of the eyewriter that can help a person perform functions by reading brain waves rather than eye movements.

In 2012, Ebeling saw a story in Time Magazine about a boy named Daniel, whose arms were amputated after a bomb exploded in his village in South Sudan. The boy had said in an interview that he would rather have died than live like that. So Ebeling flew to Africa, met Daniel, and used a 3D printer to make Daniel a $100 prosthetic arm that has changed Daniel's life. What's more, Ebeling taught the community how to use the printer so they could use it in the future.

"That's one of my favorite things about that project," he said. "I landed in LA after coming back from the trip, opened up my email in the airport, and there were pictures of two more arms that were made while I was in the air. I was walking in the airport with my hands above my head."

Not Impossible Labs is also an open space for ideas, and a community anyone who wants to see them come to life. Up until now, Ebeling has worked on all of the projects himself. People pitch an idea, and if it tugs at his heartstrings enough, he takes on the project. It's usually crowdfunded directly through the website.

But, to scale the platform — which Ebeling plans to do in 2014 — he is changing it so that it will connect people with problems that can be solved with people who have the skills and resources to do it. It's crowdsourcing on a whole new level — instead of matching people who have money, it's matching people who want to do good for the world.

Ebeling grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and his parents opened the area's first domestic violence shelter for women, and his father, who recently passed away, started Wellcare, which provided free health insurance to working mothers.

He said it's interesting to look at what he is doing now, which is predominantly providing medical care that is free and open source so that the projects are not limited to people of certain socioeconomic statuses. It reminds him very much of his parents' work.

"It wasn't their full-time thing. They did it on the side, at night, and weekends," he said. "I just learned that's just what you do. I never think of it as 'Oh, I should really go spend time ladeling soup in a soup kitchen.' It's no drama. It's what you do."

Both his parents were heavily involved with various charities. His father sat on the board for many philanthropies and always tried to run them like a business, rather than a charity, Ebeling said. He angered a lot of people, but when he passed away, those same people were at his funeral.

Ebeling said, "They made it through the bubble because of some of the decisions he made."

Ebeling naturally credits his father's constant resolve to better the world as a driving force that shaped his life.

"You don't really know how your parents are raising you until you're older and you start to see and look at life through their eyes," he said.

Ebeling is also a producer. He is the founder and CEO of The Ebeling Group, a production company based in Venice Beach, California, and he credits his production career for preparing him for this venture with Not Impossible because he was constantly presented with situations in which he had to figure out how to pull it off, even if it seemed impossible.

Not Impossible was a part-time project for a while, but Ebeling realized that when he was out at social events, he was telling people about the projects rather than about his producing gig. He knew that it was his passion, and he had to pursue it. It demands a lot of hours, but his determination has never waned.

"I really love it. That's why I do it. It really speaks to me," he said.

Ebeling wasn't a tech guy, and didn't have the credentials to start a company. But he did it anyway. He's now connecting strangers around the world to overcome lots of different kinds of challenges.

"I love being the dumbest guy in the room, and learning more and more as I get into situations," he said. "I can talk from a producer's standpoint. I know that could be possible, I've heard or listened or witnessed."

Using technology like 3D printing is important to Ebeling because it is the most obvious solution for things like Project Daniel. Ebeling isn't shy about saying he thinks 3D printing is the next revolution, either. His seven-year-old knew how to 3D print a toy before he could read.

He's emotionally attached to these projects and the ripple effect they could have. Right now, he is working on one project that can help deaf people hear again, and another that will help blind people detect what's above them. Right now, they can only tell what's below them. It's simple, but incredibly practical, Ebeling said.

"I imagine myself when I'm 95, sitting on my porch and I pop my teeth out, I can look over my life and say there were this many devices that I physically helped to make happen and Not Impossible took the lead."

Ebeling wants these projects to influence the thousands of innovative things to come, and he wants it to be because of the philosophy that his organization always abided by — "Technology for the sake of humanity."

"To look over the entire world and see all these projects, to be able to say version 1.0 [of Not Impossible] started this. That's the legacy I want to have."

In his own words...

How do you unplug?

"I have an amazing time with my kids, and I exercise although I could probably do it more. I snowboard, I bike, I skateboard, I surf."

What are your favorite tech tools?

"I like Evernote. What's so funny is that I'm trying to live a not tech life if you can believe that... I use my phone to do basic things, but I'm not huge social media person. If you're constantly looking down, you're not looking up and around."

What advice would you give to those just starting out in the business and tech world?

"Don't feel that you have to wait for someone else to do it. I did not know anything about 3D printing and I pulled off Project Daniel. I was able to build a team that could crack that open. Using me as an example, I was not the right person to push those through. [Don't] rely necessarily on tech and scientific brilliance. It's about tenacity, which is not taught in schools."

What's your favorite type of music?

"I'm into everything — hip hop, jazz, old blues. I'm a Pandora-head."

What do you like to cook?

"I do breakfast. Does that count? I cook great breakfast."

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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