Header

Mick Ebeling, ‘92, refuses to see the world like the rest of us. When asked to help fight ALS, most people offer their time, donate resources or, more recently, pour ice water over themselves and post a video online. Ebeling, with no technical training or background in engineering, invented a pair of glasses that allows the paralysed to write with their eyes.

His journey into Sudan’s Nuba Mountains starts with a Time magazine article and ends with the world’s least expensive, most accessible prosthetic limb. To get there, Mick founded Not Impossible Labs, an organization committed to “disrupting the story of healthcare.”

More importantly, Ebeling’s work is changing the trajectory of people’s lives in ways those people couldn’t see coming. After Daniel Omar’s arms were taken by a bomb dropped by his own government, after his wounds had healed and the realization set in that he would never again bathe or feed himself, depression and hopelessness set in. Until, that is, Mick Ebeling flew to Sudan.

[Meet Mick]

He might have designed himself. Born in Long Beach and raised in Phoenix where his parents started Arizona’s first abuse women’s shelter, philanthropy “was always a part of my life.” He chose the Air Force Academy in Colorado where he played D1 basketball on a full ride, but transferred to UC Santa Barbara in 1990. “I wanted to play more and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in the military for the rest of my life,” says Ebeling. “I applied to UC Santa Barbara, and I got in, thankfully, with a little help from the volleyball coach there, Ken Preston [‘70].”

When 4 a.m. rides home to Isla Vista on a borrowed bike from his job as a bouncer at a long-closed State Street bar grew tiresome, Ebeling turned entrepreneurial to help pay room and board. He and a Lambda Chi Alpha brother started a business selling jeans, then outfi ts to sororities for volleyball tournaments. There may be stories in Ebeling’s forthcoming book, “about some of the things that happened at Santa Barbara...different things that I was doing just to put myself through school that ended up turning into good businesses.”

Along with the vast differences between student life in a military academy and on the beach, the “the Yin and Yang as far as college experience goes,” Ebeling emphasizes “the friendships made” during his time at UCSB. Some of his fraternity brothers spoke at his wedding, and his children’s godparents are Gauchos. “It was an incredible community that came out of Santa Barbara.”

With his UCSB political science degree, Ebeling eventually became a film and animation producer. The Ebeling Group is behind projects including, famously, the title sequence for the James Bond film Quantum of Solace and credits for the Will Ferrell film Stranger than Fiction.

But the path he is on now began in 2007 when he met the Southern California street artist Tempt One. Tempt has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and, slipping into paralysis, could no longer communicate with friends and loved ones. Ebeling walked into a meeting with Tempt’s family with the intention of helping to cover some of their medical costs. By the time he walked out he had promised, despite knowing almost nothing about ALS or ocular technologies, to find a way for Tempt and his family to communicate again. “Meeting Tempt and the EyeWriter are why I’m [here],” says Ebeling. “I believe the things that you experience in your life are what gives rise to other things and significant moments lead to significant outcomes.”

The outcome in this case was the EyeWriter, a device created by a geographically dispersed team of volunteer experts which not only gave Tempt and his loved ones the ability to communicate, but allowed him to start making art again. It was also in this process that Not Impossible Labs was formed and began it’s incredible campaign to crowd-source the design and production of low-cost, do-it-yourself (DIY) medical devices. To ensure those devices have the greatest possible impact, their designs are released on open-source licenses so anyone can use, customize and improve them.

Ebeling’s upbringing in a family dedicated to giving back, the discipline required to play D1 basketball (and to survive two years at Air Force) and his skills as a producer, managing projects and talent seem, in hindsight, are a near perfect formation for a man who is now unleashing a tidal wave of creative disruption on healthcare.

“My dad grew up in the depression, so I think he always had a feeling of being grateful for what he had. My mom came from a very large family—nine brothers and sisters —neither of them grew up in even any kind of middle class environment, so I think that my dad was able to, you know, have a successful business—I think there was just a tremendous feeling of wanting to give back and appreciation,” says Ebeling.

Ebeling is a Gaucho of incredible determination, but that doesn’t fully explain what motivates a person to finish reading a magazine article, walk out the front door and go change the lives of everyone about whom they’ve just read.

[Daniel Omar’s Sudan]

Like many families in the Nuba mountains, a region near the border of North and South Sudan, the Omars feel free to mix religions. “My father and mother are Muslims,” said Daniel Omar. “But from the moment I started talking, I decided I was a Christian. They let me.”

Despite the religious tolerance of the Nuba People, the Sudan in which Daniel Omar is growing up is among the most conflict-ridden regions on earth - its history is the story of persistent conflict and suffering. Anglo-Egyptian imperialism began in 1899 and gave way to a first civil war in 1955, then a second in 1983. In 2011, South Sudan was officially granted sovereignty by referendum, but a bloody South Sudanese civil war has been raging there ever since. Among the Sudanese who have survived this history, these wars, and who have lost their limbs and endured debilitation, many wonder, given what their country seems always to have been, what chance is there for hope? Which is exactly what Daniel Omar asked himself after a bomb dropped by his own government took both his arms.

“I was at El Dar, taking care of our cows,” said Omar. “I heard the sound of an Antonov so I lay down. Then I could hear that it had released a bomb and it was coming down on me. So I jumped up, ran behind a tree, and wrapped my arms around it.” The move behind that tree may have saved Daniel’s life, but when he looked down he saw blood. “I saw my hands were not there. I could not even cry. I stood up, and started walking, then I fell down. A soldier came and picked me up and put me in the shade. Then he got a car. And they washed and bandaged me, and brought me here.” The here in this case was the clinic of Dr. Tom Catena at the Mother of Mercy Hospital in rebel-controlled Southern Sudan. Catenae has saved hundreds of lives and performed dozens of amputations since arriving in the area in 2008. In 2011, Sudan’s Khartoum-based government started launching attacks targeted at Nuba-based guerrilla rebels. Those attacks escalated into what Catena called “premeditated civilian bombing … to terrorize people and force them out of their homes.”

For Omar, once his arms healed into rounded, scarless nubs, the troubles were just beginning. “Without hands, I can’t do anything,” said Omar. “If I could have died, I would have.”

[Prosthetics Problems]

Prosthetic limbs are expensive; up to $10,000 per finger, as Richard Van As found out after losing four fingers from his right hand to a table saw. Not only are they expensive, they aren’t very good. “I started investigating things online and all of the different prosthetics that are available,” said Van As. “None of them are functional, as in returning functionality to your hand.” “I had actually decided, when I was in the emergency room, that I’m going to make a set of fingers for myself,” said Van As. “I originally asked a lot of people for some help, and I sort of was turned down before you could even open up a discussion with people, by them saying ‘it’s impossible.’ And the more people told me it’s impossible the more I decided it was possible.”

From his home in South Africa, Van As found a YouTube video of an alien-like mechanical hand created by special effects hobbyist Ivan Owen in Bellingham Washington. The two men began collaborating at a distance. Progress was painstakingly slow until Makerbot, developers of 3D printing technologies, donated a pair of 3D printers, one for each collaborator. It was “an incredible boost to the speed with which we can do this,” Van As explained. Suddenly, they were able to iterate through design versions more quickly. They started a blog to document their efforts.

A South African woman named Yolandi reached out to Van As on behalf of her five year old son Liam, whose prenatal condition called Amniotic Band Syndrome had left him with no fingers on his right hand. Owen and Van As made their first Robohand for Liam and released their designs for free online. Looking for a next step after the EyeWriter’s success, Ebeling found Van As and began a kind of makers’ courtship. “We had done an article on Richard, the work he was doing in South Africa, in May 2013. And then two months later on July 11th, I discovered the article on Dr Tom,” says Ebeling. “We love to tell about people who are making the impossible possible, and so Richard embodies that more than anybody I know. He’s someone who just took matters into his own hands and created an incredible solution and then gave that solution away for free.”

[Scaling Goodness]

“I just knew how to produce projects and I’m really passionate about something when I sink my teeth into it,” Ebeling says of what’s allowed him to upend the medical device space with no technical background.

After reading about Omar and Catena, Ebeling went looking for ways to help, and his friend Van As was an obvious place to start. This time, with the successful EyeWriter under his belt and its more sophisticated sister project the BrainWriter in development, Ebeling knew more about designing systems that people can pick up and use on their own.

This was particularly important in a place like Sudan where interethnic conflict and the bodily harm it causes aren’t going away because a westerner flies in with a day or week’s worth of supplies. The goal, much more than to replace the arms of Daniel Omar, was to create a sustainable solution for amputees in the Nuba mountains and elsewhere.

A Not Impossible Labs team assembled and started working on a system they could bring to Sudan and leave there. Besides speed, another advantage of 3D printing is cost - though the printers themselves are still expensive, the materials needed to produce a limb from Not Impossible’s final design cost around $10. With his team’s research and Van As’ practical experience, Ebeling began practicing printing and assembling the parts. He stopped by Van As’ house in South Africa to finish training on his way to Sudan, where it would take days to reach the village where Omar lived.

There are videos online about Ebeling’s trip, and they’re worth watching. Particularly moving are back to back shots: the first of an armless Omar, a morbid, defeated look on his face, being fed by a boy his own age; the second of Omar’s strange new fingers grasping cutlery, guiding spoonfuls from the plate up to his own mouth.

Once Omar was fitted with his new prosthetics, Ebeling showed other villagers how to use the equipment to replicate the process. They set up a prosthetics lab, and when Mick came back to the US, he left the 3D printers and other materials behind. “People haven’t seen a screwdriver, they haven’t seen a drill,” said Van As. “Then Mick arrives, and he’s got 3-D printers, and it’s so simple.” What Not Impossible accomplished was to provide, rather than a one-time aid package, a sustainable resource for dealing with a prolific issue in Sudan and elsewhere.

Richard Van As now owns a T-shirt that reads “International Arms Dealer - in a good way.”

[“Help One, Help Many”]

Project Daniel has grown past Omar and past Sudan. Because Not Impossible and Robohands’ design are open source, people from all over the world have downloaded and used them, giving themselves and loved ones dexterity they’ve never had or thought they’d never get back.

Part of the EyeWriter and of Project Daniel’s success had to do with the ease and affordability with which anyone could make these at home. Without releasing their designs open source and without the reduction and centralization of costs brought on by 3D printers, these projects wouldn’t have succeeded as they have. “This is like a story that never ends, so people tell it and then someone else picks it up and keeps telling it in a new way, or a different way and they make modifications,” said Ebeling.

Not Impossible Labs is also driven by volunteers. “We have a slate of projects and those projects start and stop based on the volunteers that come on board to them and [some] projects haven’t taken off nearly as much as some of the other ones,” says Ebeling. “When you have things that are crowd-sourced you have to go with the whims and the interest because the crowd very much dictates how things evolve.”

[Grander Designs]

Mick Ebeling has become a celebrity of sorts. He is asked to speak at events and conferences around the world, he has a TED talk, Simon and Schuster published book of his coming out in early 2015, and will give the commencement address at a UCSB graduation ceremony next year. Despite the impact of the projects he takes on with Not Impossible, his ambitions seem to extend beyond healthcare. “What we’re doing at Not Impossible is work that we believe is going to help evolve our planet, but we’re also not a non-profit,” says Ebeling. “We figured out ways to do this and to create global change and to be able to create something that is sustainable and self sustaining. And that’s something that I’m probably most proud of right now: we’re on the verge of a new type of thinking within business right now - that doing good can be a good business.”

Success is attainable, Ebeling advises a new generation of Gauchos, “as long as you’re driven, as long as you work hard, you do good, you be nice, and you, you know, work hard again.” “Knowing that everything is possible is a pretty great way to wake up every morning.”

All photos courtesy of NOT impossible [labs].

comments powered by Disqus
.






.
.
.