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Mick Ebeling developed a prosthetic hand for Daniel Omar after reading about the Sudanese boy in Time magazine. (Timoteo Freccia)
Mick Ebeling developed a prosthetic hand for Daniel Omar after reading about the Sudanese boy in Time magazine. (Timoteo Freccia)

THE INNOVATIVE MIND

Mick Ebeling turns tragedies into technological breakthroughs Add to ...

The act involved great humanism, a 3-D printer and that contemporary need to film it all.

It’s the curious way humanitarianism (and the money to back it) works in modern times. It started when Mick Ebeling read a news article about Daniel Omar, then a 14-year-old Sudanese boy who had lost an arm to a bomb attack.

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Mr. Ebeling, a filmmaker in Venice, Calif., isn’t like most. He didn’t read the April 2012 piece in Time magazine about the boy, feel the injustice of the world and then go about the day.

Mr. Ebeling drew up a plan of action which, a year and a half later, took him to the Democratic Republic of the Sudan with the 3-D printer. With the help of a team of developers, the printer was able to build Mr. Omar a cheap prosthesis, demonstrating how this could be replicated in the most remote areas for an untold number of other amputees. But Mr. Ebeling’s focus was chiefly on helping one boy.

He had already done this kind of thing before.

A few years prior, he had gathered a team of technicians and computer specialists to help Los Angeles graffiti artist Tempt One, who is paralyzed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The team helped create the EyeWriter, really just a pair of glasses with a webcam attached, jimmied together with bits of tire and tape, allowing Tempt One to draw once again with a laser pointer operated by his eye movements. The plans were put online for anyone to replicate and improve upon for free.

“Ultimately, the inventions that we’re making and championing are lowest-common-denominator inventions. They are designed to be open source. They’re designed to be low cost. They’re designed to be easy to make and accessible,” Mr. Ebeling said.

And in both cases, the aim was to help many by concentrating on one. “It’s so much easier to say ‘no’ or ‘I’m too busy’ or ‘too tired’ when you’re trying to help the entire world of amputees, or the entire world of the deaf or the blind.

“But when you’re helping one person, try saying, ‘No.’ Try sending that e-mail [saying], ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you now, I’m too busy.’” Mr. Ebeling’s voice turned incredulous. “No” would be out of the question for him.

From these efforts sprang his company Not Impossible Labs. Although he still makes films and commercials, Mr. Ebeling has fallen into a sideline of taking on these projects and corralling like-minded specialists to donate their time.

“I actually feel most at home when I find people who make me feel really dumb, who are brilliant at their particular things. And then I gather these people, put them in a room and watch incredible things come out of it,” he said.

Mr. Ebeling wears caps. Baseball and flat caps. He sports a goatee. In his mid-40s, he talks with the same awesomeness of an older skateboarder or aging graffiti tagger. And he can bring an audience to a standing ovation at a TED talk.

With a political science degree and his filmmaking career, “There’s really nothing that points to what I’m doing now that is based on my past experience,” he said, “except for the fact that as a [film] producer, you’re constantly given impossible deadlines, impossible challenges and impossible budgets. And you’re just expected to figure it out.”

Funding for the EyeWriter came out of his pocket. He flew in the team of hackers and technicians that made the EyeWriter and had them stay for two weeks in his own home. “When I realize something needs to be done, I probably don’t act with the most logical financial prudence. I just say, ‘We gotta do this.’”

Up till Project Daniel, Not Impossible Labs was a not-for-profit group to co-ordinate these humanitarian projects. With Project Daniel and the prosthesis effort, Not Impossible has been turned into a for-profit organization. It still partly operates as a foundation to which people can donate for the various causes the operation is involved with (for instance, the EyeWriter has evolved into a device that can be controlled with EEG brainwaves, because Tempt One’s ability to blink and therefore control the original device has deteriorated).

Not Impossible’s for-profit side works with sponsors. Intel and mechanical components company Precipart Corp. are key partners in Project Daniel.

“We pivoted and changed to a different structure where we’re a for-profit, so that we can go and do the things that we want to do in a way that allows us to support ourselves. Up until that point, I was just paying for everything from my own pocket,” Mr. Ebeling said. “Now we’ve come up with a way that, through the telling of our stories, has been able to generate some revenue, so we can continue to do the work that we’re doing.

“So, we still have the foundation. If someone gives us money to the foundation, 100 per cent of that money goes toward supporting the initiatives.”

But the business of filming the efforts and getting the word out to the rest of the world about these open-source, DIY inventions is funded in part by corporate partners looking for exposure.

“Our business is to give these stories to brands, which they are then able to take and benefit from. It’s like a television commercial or Web film or something like that. But it doesn’t infringe on the core ethos of what we’re trying to create.”

So, for instance, Intel has been promoting Project Daniel on the Web and through social media and helping to get the message out about this ability of 3-D printing and prostheses.

“It enhances it and amplifies it so we can get it to more people. For us, that’s what’s really exciting, because the story of what we’re doing is equally, if not slightly more powerful, than the actual invention that we worked on,” Mr. Ebeling said.

Yet he added that the entire ethos is not profit based. It’s about funding the ability to bring teams of specialists to make these basic bits of equipment in ways that anyone with a little dexterity can also make, putting it online and letting the world help itself.

“We don’t want people to think that they have to be an engineer or a coder or a hacker. I just want people to think logically and say, ‘Wait, if that’s possible than that should be possible too,’” he said.

“So when you take the concept of profit, and you take the concept of ego out of it and proprietary-ness, then you have this incredible momentum that nobody wants to stop. Everybody wants to see it going forward.”

Follow on Twitter: @Guy_Dixon

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