Elliot Kotek took the stage to apologize.
“Sorry everyone,” he said. “Things are going to be a little different this morning.”
It was the opening day of North By Northeast Interactive, Toronto’s annual digital media conference, and things were off to a rocky start. Dozens of attendees, journalists and businesspeople had lined the hallways of the Hyatt Regency Hotel for the first session of the four-day event. The room was buzzing as patrons awaited the talk by Mitch Ebeling, founder of The Ebeling Group, on his various philanthropic projects. Instead, at the front of the room now stood Kotek, a 41-year-old Australian native in a shirt slightly rumpled. Perched atop a broken down boom box at the foot of the stage sat a prosthetic arm, awash in the blue of the stage lights.
Through nervous laughter, Kotek adjusted his black-rimmed glasses and apologized once more before launching into a blistering hour-long presentation on how he, Ebeling, and a community of tinkerers and technologists are trying to remake the world from the ground up, one person, and story, at a time.
Not Impossible Now is a collaborative initiative co-founded by Kotek and Ebeling in 2009. Based in Venice, California, the group builds affordable solutions for people with complex problems, providing them with help that is otherwise cost-prohibitive and out of reach.
By relying on their “community of innovators,” said Kotek, established industries are disrupted, competition increases, and most importantly, people get the assistance they need. The group is Ebeling’s brainchild, who founded the non-profit Not Impossible Foundation to lift people beyond their difficult circumstances.
In helping an individual and telling their story to the world, the hope is to break down political and bureaucratic barriers, clearing the way for change on a global scale. As the Not Impossible crew say, they use, “technology for the sake of humanity.”
Shortly after its founding, Not Impossible found its first story to tell.
Tony Quan, better known as TEMPT1, is a graffiti artist in Los Angeles who began writing in the 1980s, gaining a following with his unique style. In 2003, however, he was diagnosed with ALS, and was completely paralyzed not long after, only able to move his eyes. Wanting to help, Not Impossible went to work on their first project: the EyeWriter. With off the shelf components and an open-source approach, the small team of tinkerers did what was thought to be impossible. With the EyeWriter, TEMPT1 could once again create his art.
Not only was the EyeWriter project a massive technological success, but in telling TEMPT1’s story to the world, the group fulfilled its own mission. The device was dubbed one of the 50 Best Inventions of 2010 by TIME. A documentary film showcasing the group’s efforts, how it's wedding philanthropy with technology to help an artist lay down fresh paint, made its way to film festivals, winning awards. The EyeWriter shot the Not Impossible name into the limelight.
Three years later, the group travelled to Africa, where its second major effort took off.
The violence in South Sudan has been raging since 2011, leaving more than a thousand people dead, with tens of thousands more maimed.
In the middle of the conflict was Daniel Omar, a 14-year-old who had both his arms blown off. Stuck living in a refugee camp and unable to do even the simplest of tasks without assistance, Daniel was convinced life was not worth living. In 2013, Not Impossible went to work.
What came out of Project: Daniel is astounding. With the help of Dr. Tom Catena, an American doctor working in the region, the team created a custom 3D printed prosthetic made of plastic and wire. For the first time in two years, Daniel was able to feed himself with his new left arm.
Kotek brought a version of the 3D printed limb with him to his talk, which garnered significant attention from the crowd for its look and functionality. Though what made it truly powerful was the the device’s ability to change a life.
And not just one life either. Not Impossible was able to empower those living in the area to do the same for others. With laptops and 3D printers, the crew set up what it called in a press release, “probably the world's first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility.” More prosthetics have been created for others since Daniel received his, improving their quality of life as well.
The emerging projects that Kotek is shepherding at Not Impossible are all similarly ambitious. Wide-eyed and breathless, he races to describe them all. There’s a metronome to help people overcome their stutter, a group of high school students want to build a device to help paralyzed people walk, and a plan to help a man who hasn’t spoken in years to regain his voice in time to recite his wedding vows to his wife on their anniversary. There are also updates to the EyeWriter and a “secret project” in the works as well. Each one a compelling story, each one with the potential to upend the status quo.
The phrases that Kotek throws around when describing Not Impossible like, “Technology for the sake of humanity,” or “Help one, help many” would fit nicely on the bland motivational posters that line the hallways of any start-up with lofty ambitions. But unlike those, Not Impossible seems determined to get the job done, to make a difference, and tell the story, one success at a time.
“To me, it was really just about the storytelling,” said Kotek. “And the more these stories get shared, the more the community rallies around action.”