Start-Ups

The startup that's doing the impossible

By crowdsourcing ideas and skills -- and not just money -- Not Impossible Labs is pushing the boundaries of technology to make the world a better place. Learn how.

mick-daniel-notimpossible.jpg
Mick Ebeling is the founder of Not Impossible Labs, a startup based in Venice, California.
 Image: Not Impossible Labs

Not Impossible Labs is a crowdfunding phenomenon. It's not about simply donating a small, finite amount of money to a gadget that you want to own in the end. It's not doing anything for direct payback. It's a new approach that is becoming more commonplace as our resources grow thinner, our spaces smaller, and our world more connected.

"You and I have lived through a revolution, the social economy, with Airbnb, Uber, and we can say crowdfunding was the tip of that," said Mick Ebeling, CEO and founder of Not Impossible Labs.

The company, which is soon rebranding as simply "Not Impossible," is a startup based in Venice, California. The Not Impossible Foundation raises money to fund the crowdsourced projects of the lab, which is run by a small team under Ebeling's lead.

What's most intriguing about this company, however, is where it's headed. Ebeling wants it to start the next phase of crowdfunding, and in turn, the next phase of this revolution.

He wants Not Impossible to be a matchmaking service. Not the romantic type, of course, but one that takes someone with a cause and matches them with someone with skills relevant to that cause and wants to help.

"Now they can use those exact same skills they are already using in their personal life, just tinkering, and tackle a project," he said. "Take everything they have access to and skew it...People are hungry for things like that to do."

The project that started it all

Several years ago, Ebeling and his wife went to a fundraising event. They bought some paintings from the event to support the cause. They found out the art was the work of LA graffiti artist Tempt One, who was fully paralyzed because of Lou Gehrig's disease. He couldn't move or breathe on his own, let alone make art.

Ebeling committed right then to Tempt One's brother and father that he would get them a Steven Hawking-type machine so he could speak again, and he also promised the man that he would draw again.

"I had zero clue. I walked out like, what did i just commit myself to," he said.

But he did it, with the help of his wife and his team at Not Impossible, and now the design of the Eyewriter device they created is available for free from their site. The Eyewriter was also the source of inspiration for a documentary. By hooking up a PS3 camera mounted to an LED light and connected to a pair of cheap sunglasses, he created a medical device that tracks eye movements so that a person can draw or write. The software is open source, free, and available to help anyone who is paralyzed. The artist drew again after seven years when he started using the device.

The Eyewriter was the seed for the Brainwriter, which tracks brain waves instead of eye movements so that someone who can't even move their eyes can draw or write. The product will debut this summer and stand on display next to Google Glass and Oculus Rift at a museum in London.

The next feat: Project Daniel

The war in Sudan is one of the most violent and longstanding in Africa. According to Not Impossible, it has left 50,000 amputees in its wake. A boy named Daniel was one of them. He had his arms blown off when he was 14. Ebeling saw an article in Time Magazine about Daniel, and traveled to Sudan with 3D printers, spools of plastic, and a goal to build a prosthetic arm for Daniel. He had sponsorship from Intel and Precipart, as well as donations through the Not Impossible Foundation.

He made the arm using a 3D printer, and watched Daniel feed himself for the first time in two years. Ebeling then taught the village locals how to make the prosthetics themselves so the project could continue. Since then, they have printed an arm a week.

Though 3D printing isn't a part of every project Not Impossible takes on, it is an important aspect of ones like these, and Ebeling truly believes in the power of this new technology.

"The 3D printer is a computer, and to us it's a pencil, it's paper. It's a tool," Ebeling said. "I personally think it's the equivalent of steam engine or printing press in terms of what it's going to do...in terms of what's possible."

Growing the movement

The philosophy of Not Impossible Labs is "Technology for the sake of humanity." Keeping that in mind, Ebeling has worked hard to make sure the model is sustainable and survives the ebb and flow of charitable giving.

"Healthcare for us is the lowest hanging fruit, the highest emotional need, so we are looking at other things that are not necessarily healthcare related," Ebeling said. "It comes down to what people need, then people will make it. It's not ours to decide."

Right now, the Not Impossible Labs team touches every project they commit to, and it's hard to do as much as they want. Ebeling said he get emails every day about new, inspiring things to work on in the healthcare field. Other projects that the team is working on include a device to help the deaf hear again and something to help blind people detect what's above them so they don't run into things.

"It's more about the emotional aspect of a cause, the purpose, the reason to do it," he said. He gave an example: a father reaches out and says his son is paralyzed from an offroading accident, and he can't afford a mouse that can help drive a computer that he uses with his mouth.

"He asks, 'Can you help us build one that's cheaper?' Try to say no to that. You can't do it."

There are many other things that aren't emotionally connective or Not Impossible doesn't have the resources to tackle. But the great ones -- the ones that go viral, that inspire, that bring tears to your eyes -- they don't really need an explanation.

This is why crowdfunding is important. It's the idea that power can be put back into the hands of average people who want to make a difference. People who can decide which ideas mean the most to them and find a way to create, make, fix, or improve things, or solve a problem. And once this matching service is set up, Not Impossible will be able to reach many more people.

"It's such an amazing thing to witness and live through, people giving with what they have and figuring it out," Ebeling said.

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.

3 comments
wotzatagin
wotzatagin

Inspirational and humbling. Thank you TR

*bernie
*bernie

Great article again. Actually this is better than telling the old Gospel. The new gospel is about anyone being able to do good for a lot of people. I also like Mick Ebeling's take on crowdfunding.

pmangs
pmangs

This is awesome! Technology meeting "desperate needs". I must admit, this is one of the great positive things invention has provided. We should see more advancement like this touching humanity. Great article!

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