Making the impossible possible

Not Impossible Labs' founders on creating visceral storytelling, robotic arms, the maker movement and lessons for brands.
not impossible

Imagine a business problem. Are you losing share or affinity? Being shut out by the competition? Struggling to communicate with your agency? Does it feel like an impossible task?

Take inspiration then from the founders of the Not Impossible Labs, an organization dedicated to, as the name suggests, make the impossible possible.

It started with a project in 2008, says Mick Ebeling, CEO and co-founder of NI. A friend of his was diagnosed with ALS, and unable to continue creating his graffiti art. Ebeling flew in a bunch of friends to his home and spent two weeks hacking a solution. What emerged was the Eyewriter, a tool that allows people to paint using their eye movements. The device was quickly picked up by the mass media and tech blogs, while his friend, Tempt One, had his work featured in the Museum of Modern Art.

In 2013, Ebeling formally founded the Not Impossible Labs, and has since created 3D-printed robotic arms for victims of war (currently in the running for a Cannes Innovation Lion, as well as picking up a Gold in Product Design and Bronze in Cyber), a cane that provides the blind with information about their surroundings and a mouse that allows quadriplegics to operate computers. Projects are built for a specific person (the Daniel arm or the Chad cane, for example), by a group of volunteers across the globe who lend their expertise and insight into the building, while the technology behind it is posted online afterwards for folks to modify at their leisure.

Alongside co-founder and content chief Elliot Kotek, Ebeling was in town this week ahead of a NXNE talk. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) he had to fly out ahead of his Wednesday talk to pitch the 3D-printed robotic arm at Cannes.

Strategy caught up with the pair, however, when they were both in Toronto, to learn more about their philosophy to bettering the world, the lab’s raison d’etre and lessons for marketers in creating the impossible.

When you guys meet folks for the first time, how do you explain Not Impossible?

Ebeling: We are a crowd-sourced site of innovation based around social good, social inventions.

Kotek: We have two mantras we live by: one is “technology for the sake of humanity,” and the other is “help one, help many.”

There are many people doing tech for the sake of tech, and we think that’s awesome and playful, but we like taking those tools and applying them to humanity and seeing how they can actually help people and make lives better.

We tell our own stories and the stories of other innovators who are helping people in the hope that either the tools that are created for one person have the potential application to help thousands, or that we inspire someone or other thousands of people to take up projects of their own.

To put it more simply, we create access. Anyone whose limited [by] physical, geographic or financial accessibility, we try and come up with solutions to help them have access to the tools we need to communicate and live a more full life.

When you first came up with Not Impossible, what was the inspiration, the thought process?

Ebeling: In 2008, the Eyewriter was the aha moment. We saw a need that needed to be made not impossible, so I flew a bunch of guys to my house and in two weeks we hacked together a solution. We gave it to Tempt and he drew again, and then we went home.

And then suddenly we wake up, and it’s Time Magazine‘s top invention of 2010, it’s a Ted Talk, it’s a permanent collection at the MOMA.

So I took the next four years working on the Eyewriter to reflect on it. And about a year ago, [I realized the reason it worked was] that “technology for the sake of humanity” is key. And it’s about one person – “help one, help many.” And those were the core things we distilled down to. Now, we look at every project from “what is the core need?” “what needs to be made ‘not impossible?’” and then “what is it that we can do to crowd-source a team to solve the problem?”

Was there any particular reason you decided to focus on health?

Ebeling: Things tend to stray towards the medical because medical is incredibly emotional, personal, visceral in terms of a family’s connection with that particular, need/syndrome/disease, what have you. So that’s why things have tended to go this way.

Kotek: But the whole concept of Not Impossible is that it has application everywhere. Everything on your desk, everything in front of you was considered impossible at some point. [An idea] might be impossible now or in this moment, but at some point it’s going to become possible. So if you look at life through that lens, and you look at life like what is potentially achievable or worth a shot at, then things are going to be made and progress will be advanced.

Why is the maker movement, crowd-sourcing movement resonating with people right now?

Ebeling: Right now, as a species, what is taking place is we had the internet – primarily a communication tool – and then it grew into an information pool. But now, we have a global brain. We have access to this technology and knowledge that’s unfettered and unimaginable [in terms of] how much information we have at our fingertips. And now, we’re seeing the physical manifestation of that knowledge.

People have the desire to take that knowledge and turn it into something. From an economical standpoint, people are empowered to do things better, faster, cheaper, rather than be beholden to a system or supply chain or infrastructure you have to abide by. You can circumvent “the man,” and do it for yourself. I think you’re seeing in the maker movement, which has really seeped into the general population, there is the feeling that if you can do it yourself, there’s a connection to it, but there’s economical [benefits] and personal accomplishments.

Kotek: You’re not limited by geography anymore. If you’re connected to the internet, you have the opportunity to voice your opinion and share data and content with other like-minded individuals across the globe. So it’s now easier than ever to find your community.

And what does that mean for brands?

Ebeling: The stories we tell are human, they’re technological, but they’re human. It starts with the humanity of everything. And from a brand’s perspective, that’s the kind of connection they [want].

Why is content such an important part of your identity?

Ebeling: If you look at the inventions we create, they’re simple, they are crude. The Eyewriter was a pair of busted-up glasses and a camera we zip-tied to a piece of metal. What we’re creating is not pretty.

What’s amazing about it is the story, what it signifies, who it’s about and what it will accomplish. The story is what we want to use to amplify our cause, which is to empower people to go do more things. If we just created this device and gave it to a couple of people, it would just affect a couple of people. If we created this device and amplify so the whole world knows about, within days there will be another built.

Kotek: Not only does the device have the power to travel and scale as a result of the storytelling, but the message inspires you to go look for ways to help solve a problem in your own community, with your own family members. That helps give us exponential reach for people getting help.

Not only are we sharing our own projects, but we’re sharing other people’s [inventions]. That’s how communities get built.

How can brands who want to be involved get involved?

Kotek: It’s a three-tiered system. They can get involved with, which is a straight advertising partnership with the site.

We have opportunities to co-create certain things, either [working with] the tools or the people in these movements. So whatever speaks most loudly with that brand.

Then the third level is we can get together on a project and change lives. We can integrate a technology [from the brand] that integrates in an “organic” way. So we can say what’s your message, what’s our message, who can benefit most from this approach to partnering together to help someone, and then let’s tell that story and inspire thousands of people to do the same.

Check back on Saturday to hear if Ebeling and Not Impossible picked up an Innovation Lion.