Dreaming impossible dreams, and finding funding for them

Published in UT San Diego, September 16, 2013

As Pangloss says in Candide, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” And the best of all possible worlds is when you can do good and do well.

We have written about entrepreneurs who figure out how to do good for the world and also make money. Look at Warby Parker, Mamma Chia and Etsy. The growth and innovation in this space has been impressive.

Recently we talked with Mick Ebeling, founder of Not Impossible Labs, which seeks to be a “Match.com” to allow people to collaborate on creating low-cost, do-it-yourself, open-source solutions for real people with real needs.

Based in Los Angeles, Ebeling is the founder of The Ebeling Group (TEG), which he calls a “creative task force — part production company, part storytellers, part creative think tank, and a whole lot of execution.”

Their diverse projects include developing the main titles for recent James Bond films, and making Grammy-nominated music videos and commercials for companies like Budweiser and Honda. So Ebeling is definitely a person who thinks broadly and moves in diverse circles.

The idea for a new business often comes out of your own personal experience or pain. If enough other people share your problem, they will pay for your solution, and voilà, you have a viable company.

The origins of Not Impossible Labs started when Ebeling met Los Angeles graffiti artist Tempt One, who was fully paralyzed because of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Ebeling expected to see Tempt using a fancy computer system like one employed by scientist Steven Hawking.

However, he learned that these are very expensive and that few insurance companies will pay the cost. Tempt was reduced to communicating by blinking at one letter at a time on a sheet of paper held up to his face.

Ebeling thought he could do better than that. Committed to helping Tempt “speak” and “draw” again, Ebeling coordinated an international group of hardware and software developers (seven of whom moved into his house for a few weeks).

The result: The Eyewriter, an eye-tracking device made from a hacked PS3 camera, some LEDs and a pair of cheap sunglasses. Information on how to make this device is available on the Not Impossible Labs website. Watching Tempt draw (with his eyes) for the first time in seven years motivated Ebeling to figure out a way to tackle more “not impossible” projects.

“With the creation of Eyewriter we made something possible that had been impossible,” said Ebeling. The device was named one of Time Magazine’s “50 Best Inventions of 2010,” Mick became a popular TED speaker, and he and his wife, Caskey, made a documentary about Tempt.

After the success of the Eyewriter, Ebeling established the Not Impossible Foundation but promptly realized that he needed a sustainable business model, so he also formed a for-profit venture Not Impossible Labs that launched in March.

The goal is to become a content creator that shares “not impossible” stories and enables collaboration on projects and to generate revenues from advertising and sponsorships.

Currently, the website features three projects on which volunteers are working — a mouth mouse for a personal computer, a brain writer to go with the Eyewriter, and a super cane for the blind. So far, Ebeling has self-funded Not Impossible, and he is now seeking outside capital to pay for a scalable infrastructure and back end so that he can “open the floodgates.”

We love Ebeling’s story. He reminds us of Tom Sawyer who persuaded his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence as a privilege. He is open-sourcing the passion of others to solve the problems that intrigue and engage them.

“We are giving people the ability to put their time, passion, skills and creativity to use. All that I’m doing is setting up the brushes. I’m showing people where the fences are. The fences exist, and people want to paint them. They just don’t know how to do it,” he said. “People are grateful to be involved.”

You can hear Mick Ebeling and other thought leaders at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific conference, presented by the Atlantic magazine and UC San Diego, in La Jolla between Oct. 2-4.

Rule No. 310

Not impossible is easier than nearly impossible. It leaves no doubt, and it is the certainty of the statement that energizes the success.

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