Mick Ebeling and Daniel Belquer
How to Solve “Impossible” Problems
Mick Ebeling and Daniel Belquer are helping the deaf hear music. Not Impossible Labs built limbs for amputees in warzones. That’s just the beginning…
We come across tragic tales like this every day. Stories that enrage or depress us. And for most of us, it feels like there’s not much we can do about it.
But Mick Ebeling is not like most of us.Mick is the founder and CEO of Not Impossible Labs. They are a business that takes on seemingly insurmountable problems and solves them — usually through a combination of long hours, hard work, and unfailing determination.
When Mick about a boy named Daniel who lost both of his arms to a bomb in the South Sudan, he decided enough was enough. He assembled a team skilled in building prosthetics and 3D printing. And together they flew around the world to find that boy and help him.
I’d tell you more, but Mick’s account of the story in our interview is better.
Before launching Not Impossible Labs, Mick was a special effects producer who worked on big name commercial and movie shoots. He’ll explain why the skills he learned translate well to the wild and unexpected solutions he and his team develop today.
During this show, you’ll also hear from Daniel Belquer of Not Impossible Labs. Together with Mick, Daniel is developing a wearable technology that enables the deaf to experience music.
In speaking to Mick, I wanted to know: What’s his secret? How does he decide that now is the time to fix a problem that may have existed for decades — or more — without budging? Where does he get the confidence to know that he and his team can do it? And how do they maintain that unfailing determination, even when things are tough?
You’ll hear his answers to all of those questions in this show.
I’ve said previously that Mick and his team thrive on the craziest of crazy good turns.
In this interview, you’ll see exactly what I meant.
So, I'd like to start by asking you to take our listeners on a journey into Not Impossible's second mission. The one where you helped a boy named Daniel in the South Sudan. Can you describe for our listeners why you wanted to help him, and what happened.
MICK EBELING: Sure. I always feel like it's important to ground the philosophy and the movement of Not Impossible. We are a business but we see ourselves also as having a more grand purpose on this planet as being a movement. In our mission statement which is: Change the world through technology and stories.
So, because we are storytellers and artists, how we tell our stories is very important. And its equally as important to the crazy technology and solutions we create. Everything will always be grounded in that. As Daniel and I walk you through kind of what we're up to, everything will always be grounded in that.
So that's part of that quote. The part of the story that we tell at Not Impossible when we're tackling these absurdities — malaria, poverty, hunger — we don't tackle absurdities by name. Because there's a very easy default mode for us to go into as human beings where we could say, "Oh, that's so big, so huge."
FRANK BLAKE: Yeah, so huge.
MICK EBELING: How do you encapsulate that right? But, if you say I'm gonna solve it for John or Jane, now all of a sudden it becomes quantifiable. You get a chance to relate to it emotionally. Maybe you have a brother, or a daughter, or whatever it might be that connects you to it. Now there's a chance for you to boil that cup, as opposed to that ocean.
Very early in the launch of Not Impossible Labs, we felt a calling to create technology for the sake of humanity. I was out to dinner with a friend of mine. And he said, "Hey, I know you're still trying to figure out this whole Not Impossible thing, but you gotta check out this doctor named Tom Catena."
So, I went home afterward and researched this guy. He was an incredible doctor who was a naval surgeon and became a missionary doctor. And he was located in the Nuba Mountains, this area between Sudan and South Sudan. He talked about all the different things he had to do. And the one thing he hated to do was to perform amputations.
He talked about this one particular amputation that he had to do for a young boy named Daniel. The President of Sudan is constantly bombing the people in this area. And Daniel was out tending his family's goats and cows when he heard the bombers coming. He didn't know where to go to or where to hide.
So he hid behind a tree. He wrapped his arms around the tree, and a bomb went off not far from where he was. Because he was behind the tree, his body was protected from the blast. But because his arms were on the other side, it caused his arms to be blown off.
FRANK BLAKE: Oh my god.
MICK EBELING: And that moment — realizing that this young 12-year-old boy has forever had his life changed — was a kick in the gut for me. But what Daniel said afterward was worse. It was: "If I could die, I would, because now I'm gonna be such a burden to my family."
So I have this image of this armless boy. And then the fact that his first response was this unselfish response. He doesn't wish he was dead because he thinks "woe is me," but because he's gonna be a burden to his family. And then, while I'm reading this, I'm 40 feet away from my 12 year old boy, who was asleep.
That was the moment where I said, "Oh my god." I can't just sit back and read this story and feel bad. Or post it on Facebook tomorrow and have a dialogue about it. I have to actually go do something. So that launched Project Daniel.
We brought together a team of brilliant people. We crafted a solution and flew into this refugee camp. We ended up launching the world's first 3D printing prosthetic lab. And we created a way, not just for Daniel to be able to feed himself for the first time in two years, since he had lost both of his arms, but also for this small village to continue to print 3D arms after we left.
FRANK BLAKE: So, Mick, you say that all so matter of factly, rolling through it. But, wow. Just locating him, getting to South Sudan, getting a team together — it's not an easy thing to tackle.
MICK EBELING: It's not, and I don't want to play it down. But I think you use the skills that you've been blessed with. And at the time I was a producer and as a producer, all we do is take on projects that are impossible. Now, it was making film titles, or making Nike commercials, or different things like that. So, the cause wasn't nearly as meaningful. But you still had to deal with, and get around, these issues and problems that would pose themselves.
So, when you contextualize it, if I could figure out how to solve problems for a music video or a film title, where would run into speed bumps and roadblocks, then I could do it so a kid could feed himself.
It put things into perspective. And then you push a little bit harder on trying to figure those things out. Which is good, because they were definitely harder to figure out. Being across the world, and dealing with the U.N. and refugee camps. And dealing with all these things that I had never experienced before.
But the reason I was doing it, again, goes back to that "help one, help many" principle. If you focus on the one person, we were trying to help Daniel. It was, come hell or high water, we were gonna do anything we could to try to solve the problem and come up with a solution for him.
FRANK BLAKE: Take us to the moment when you put your invention onto Daniel and it works. What did his face look like? What did he do first?
MICK EBELING: Imagine this. You know when the sun comes down, and there's that moment where the sun goes beneath the ocean? And you know that moment where the sun comes over the horizon at sunrise? Or remember that moment when you see the rainbow after a rainstorm? Or maybe when your children were being born. Put all those into a mixing pot, and that's what it was like. It was this just beautiful moment where, we were all sleep deprived, hot, and everything up until that point felt like it was going wrong. But again Hell or high water, we were going to figure it out. The moment where we did a test, and Daniel could actually scoot down and grab — funny enough, it was literally a spoonful of sugar. And he grabbed a spoonful of sugar and put it in his mouth. That moment was just…I don't even know how to describe it, except for just beautiful. It doesn't even seem like it does it justice. It was this incredible moment where we had pulled it off. The hope, and the optimism, and the feeling that he had was just so immense. Because literally days earlier, he was forlorn and kind of looking back into the corner and not really wanting to make eye contact. All of a sudden, he was a kid again, he was goofing off and playing with stuff. It felt like he'd been almost given, or reminded, that he had permission to be a kid. And he just started being a kid again.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow. And as amazing as that story is, it's actually, that was your second project right, as Not Impossible. The first was helping a paralyzed graffiti artist draw again using only his eyes. Using a device I think you called the EyeWriter. Where'd you even come up with such an idea?
MICK EBELING: Most of the stuff that we come up with is crafted by assembling brilliant people together who are given this white slate to create whatever we need to in order to solve whatever the problem is. So, I convened a bunch of just what we call mad scientists and misfit geniuses from all the corners of the world. They came into my house while my wife and kids and I moved out. We pushed all the tables and chairs against the wall. They slept on floors and couches. We just hacked and programmed for about two and a half weeks, and ended up creating a device that was made of cheap sunglasses, a coat hanger, zip ties, duct tape, and a web camera. We wrote some code. And we put it on a paralyzed graffiti artist named Tony, or Tempt. And by moving his eyes back and forth that web camera tracked his pupil. And it essentially acted as the tip of a cursor if you will. That tracked across the screen and that allowed him to draw again. That was only possible because of this collaboration of brilliant people who convened at our house because they believed in the story of this one artist, Tempt. If I said, hey, let's practice solutions that allow paralyzed people to be able to draw, that's still very noble, but it's not as, it doesn't emotionally resonate.
FRANK BLAKE: You get lost in it.
MICK EBELING: Yea, it's like, okay yeah, it'd be great to do that. But oh I'm busy. I gotta take the kids to soccer practice. Or my job is taxing me. Whatever it might be. It's just so much more meaningful when you say, "I'm doing this for Tony." Because nobody wants to let another human being down. I truly believe that. Nobody wants to let another human being down. And so, if everyone says "I'm in, let's do this for Tempt," then when things get hard, you can't say, "Oh I'm out of here." Because you're basically saying no to the person that you said you were gonna help.
FRANK BLAKE: So, just to follow up on that — and also I'd like to ask Daniel his perspective on this — you said that a great lesson you've learned from that experience was, "Commit then figure it out." Talk a little bit about what that means for you, and how you live it.
MICK EBELING: We enter every absurdity that we're solving, every impossibility that we're trying to make not impossible, truly with no clue how we're gonna solve it. No degrees, diplomas, or credentials that entitle us to actually be able to address the issue.
FRANK BLAKE: I mean, that is part of what's amazing about this. It's not like you come at it with a deep engineering background or technological background.
MICK EBELING: No. We say that the credentials for someone who's on a Not Impossible team are two; you have to breathe air, and pump blood. If you have those two things, and the belief that it can be solved and that you're gonna play a role in solving it, then those are your credentials.
FRANK BLAKE: And so Daniel, what does it feel like when you get these, here's our absurd task we're tackling. Is your first reaction well that's absurd, or is everyone conditioned just to throw themselves into it?
DANIEL BELQUER: First of all, Mick is such an inspiration and driving force that I joke sometimes that he creates this aura of possibilities. So I felt very aligned with Not Impossible's concepts and ideas from the start because I'm naturally inclined to do things that people used to say didn't make sense, or was crazy, or is too farfetched.
So, for me it seemed like a natural movement to engage in those challenges and if you're not afraid to try and make mistakes If you have this in your heart, with the driving force and the will to help people, I think things start getting to the place. It takes a lot of effort and time, but eventually you come up with solutions that might not be right on the first try, or on the second try, on the third try, on the 100th time, but eventually, you start connecting the pieces together and you might end up with a solution. I think that's part of the beauty of it actually. How having these goals make you ge emotionally involved with another person's struggles and difficulties. And wanting to truly help and make their lives better can make amazing things happen.
FRANK BLAKE: Well you are doing some amazing and amazingly inspired things. Maybe this is a good opportunity to talk about your latest project, which if I understand it is called Vibro Tech Styles and it's actually about helping the deaf hear. Mick, can you give the background of what got you into that and maybe we can talk about how the technology works and so on.
MICK EBELING: So, we're based in Venice Beach, California. Because of that, we're skateboarding and surfing and that's part of our culture, it's just part of what we're around all the time. A friend of ours fell, hit his head, and lost his sense of smell. So, he didn't fall on his nose, he lost his sense of smell by falling on the back of his head, he wasn't wearing a helmet. And that triggered this thing for me, this realization, it was like, oh that's interesting. So you don't smell with your nose. You smell with your brain. And that means you don't see with your eyes, or taste with your tongue, or hear with your ears, you do that all with your brain.
And so that was just this interesting observation that I had. Well, that coincided at the same time where became very obsessed with how the deaf experience music. I saw some things online that the deaf would go to concerts and they would just stand in front of the speakers and just, essentially be vibrated by the speakers. To me, that seemed absurd because music is so finite, so precise, and so detailed components of music that now it's all being dumbed down into this just low-end thud. And I said, "Well, wait a second." If the eardrums are basically just vehicles to the brain, then that means you don't hear with your ears. You hear with your brain. So why don't we just figure out a way to get around the eardrum, the parts that aren't working, and get straight to the brain? I'm not talking about bone conduction, I'm talking about actually getting straight to the brain in through a different channel. So, we started to think about that and why don't we use the skin as the eardrum?
Because that can send a signal to the brain, and we'll then take the concept of music and break it into its separate parts so you've got, just say drums, vocals, bass, and guitar. So we crafted this theory that we could project music in different instruments and different components to different parts of the skin and then that would send signals to the brain. So, drums to the ankles, guitars to the ribs, vocals to the chest, bass to the base of your spine. You could do any mix of it but just use that for example. And so I thought that could work. Now I gotta figure out how we're gonna pull this off. So, I started talking to different people who I respect. And we just started brainstorming the idea. Then I got introduced to a guy named Doctor David Petrino, who I had known and had collaborated with on Project Daniel. He was a "never say die" guy. I'd met him on the Friday before we started our work on Project Daniel, in New York. Two hours after I met him, I had him on a flight to L.A. He was like, "I'm in. Let's do it. Geronimo." That mentality — Geronimo just kind of like "here we go" — is totally part and parcel of the teams that we build. So I called him, and we started brainstorming he's like, hey I know this amazing sound designer name Patty Handlin. So we got him on the phone and he said, "Oh I know this crazy mad scientist Brazilian musical genius named Daniel Belquer. We gotta get him in the works."
So that's how the team formed. We started experimenting with it, and playing with it, and they were all based in New York. So when I would get to New York I would meet up with them, and they would show me where we were going, and we were just kind of, we were working on it. It wasn't everybody's full time commitment, but it was experimentation. Then we finally got to a point where I got a meeting with the CEO of Skullcandy. I was telling him about what we were doing, and he said "Hey, my guys are gonna be in New York if you want to show it to them." So we set up this meeting and I called Daniel. And Daniel put together this demo where we could bring these guys into the sound studio and try this out. At this time, it's not wireless. It's all wires, like a Frankenstein-looking torture device. These guys came in, the meeting started, and it was clear they showed up because their boss had told them they needed to show up. They were very kind about it, they very courteous and kind, but they weren't there on their own accord.
We put it on them, and they were kind of doing, I can't do this 'cause we're in podcast land, but they were leaning back in their chairs a bit, again, they were very kind and very professional, but a little loose, and they backed up a little bit, and then Daniel put it on and started walking them through the demo. And Daniel, when Daniel, if you want passion put Daniel and music together and it's just like fireworks. So, he starts playing the music and these demos that we put together, and these guys kind of sat up a little bit in their chair. And then we did another track, and then they leaned forward a little bit. We did another track, and they leaned forward even more, and you could tell from their body language, they were like holy cow this is incredible. So, then they started asking us all these detailed questions and grilling us, and then the one younger guy was like so what's your business model. And Daniel and I were like: Got 'em. Now they get the potential of this. That was really the first domino fall. And I must add that — was it 48 hours or 72 hours later, Daniel?
DANIEL BELQUER: 48. The meeting was on Monday…
MICK EBELING: …48 hours later, Daniel and his new bride were living at my house. They had moved from New York, put all their stuff in storage and suitcases, and moved out. We had committed 100% to making this a reality.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow, all right, well we gotta pause there for a second. Daniel, you've got to jump in and explain that decision.
DANIEL BELQUER: Yeah, I was living in New York. I was recently married, and I was working at this amazing media center in New York called Harvestworks. They've been around since 1977, they have a huge community. They're a place where you can experiment and try things out. It's a very welcoming community. So, I was working there with vibrations for a while. As Mick said, music is my life. Since I was a kid, I worked as a composer, theater director, as an arranger, and technology came actually to support my artistic endeavors, so to speak. Then, I was programming stuff and teaching, doing things with this artistic mindset. Then when I heard about this project about to help the deaf have a musical experience through vibrations, I said "This is exactly right up my alley." So I thought it was gonna take me a week to everything out and then we can take it from there. It took me one year and two months…
FRANK BLAKE: A little bit longer than a week.
DANIEL BELQUER: …Yeah, exactly, a little bit longer. We should get less cockier as we age, but I still have this sometimes naïve moments of oh yeah, this is gonna be fine. It's not, think so of work and stuff. But, then when we got to this meeting, at the end, Mick was just like, "Oh you have to move to L.A. Let's do it. Let's make it happen" And I was like, "What, wait, what?" So, I came back home a little dazed. But in one of those things in life when synchronicity, or God, or the universe — however you name it — my sublet agreement was about to end two days later. I hadn't signed the new rent agreement yet. I was about to sign it the next day. So, I said okay, so we don't sign the rent agreement. We just go and experiment a little bit. Let's live in L.A. and see what happens.
MICK EBELING: And I can't stress enough, the concept that someone would make that crazy good turn and say, "Yeah, sweet, I'm going. I'm packing my bags, I'm coming out." And then live at someone's house for nine months…
FRANK BLAKE: And just married.
MICK EBELING: …just married. Yeah his wife, Zie, is incredible. She's that behind the scenes person that's just making it all possible through Daniel.
DANIEL BELQUER: Absolutely.
FRANK BLAKE: That's phenomenal.
FRANK BLAKE: So, two broad questions for each of you. The first is, did you think earlier in your professional lives that you would be heading the direction where you are now, or is this a surprise?
MICK EBELING: Daniel, you go first.
DANIEL BELQUER: Okay, for me it's a crazy good turn, as I said. basically went with the flow basically, and see wherever it would take me. But, having some assurance that at the bottom of my heart and my convictions wherever it would take me, it would be fine. Because I was completely aligned with my conscience. And I think it was the right thing to do. So there was always this drive moving forward.
FRANK BLAKE: And Mick?
MICK EBELING: You know, I believe in that saying, "The harder you work the luckier you get." Daniel and I, and the team at Not Impossible, we grind. We work really, really, really, hard. And, I think that, because of that, and because we stay focused on our values, our ideals, and the objective we're trying to accomplish, great things keep happening to us. It's funny. The younger me would have said that you work hard and you chart your course. But now I would say you work hard and you let your course be charted. But you stay, you kind of keep your own ideological compass but the rudder, if you will, is I think you have to let go a little bit and let life happen. I think that, every time that you do that, the most amazing things happen. But the exact path you take, you kind of leave open to your hard work and you're exposing yourself and being vulnerable and trying and failing. That's just all part of the process.
MICK EBELING: This is coming from a guy, I used to every January 1st would set these explicit goals-
FRANK BLAKE: I love it, I love it.
MICK EBELING: So, so explicit. And I don't do that anymore. And it's funny cause my wife and I have debated, like that's a skill set. Zig Ziglar and all these incredible people that we used to listen to growing up from our parents, talked about goal setting and how important it is. And I still truly believe that. I think at a certain point you can let life, the universe, or whatever you want to call it, just happen and evolve. But never take your foot off the gas. You have to constantly be pushing in that direction. I believe that life and destiny and your purpose is a mix of letting it happen and at the same time pointing in the right direction.
FRANK BLAKE: So, I'm dying to ask: Given the difficulty of the problems that you tackle, are there things that you do or practices that you have to keep you, as you said, at the grind? How do you stay centered on solving a problem and not giving up? Is there something that is intentional that you feel that allows you to keep doing that?
MICK EBELING: I would ask this as a question to Daniel, as if, do a little role-playing. So say I'm having a conversation with Daniel. And I said "Hey Daniel, we wanted to help the deaf experience music. It's getting really hard, what do you think about just calling it quits?" Or, "Hey Daniel. We promised Mandy that we were gonna help her experience music."
FRANK BLAKE: Mandy is one of the deaf people you're helping?
MICK EBELING: Yeah, Mandy Harvey. Look her up if you're listening right now. She's one of the most incredible vocalists — not most incredible deaf vocalists — incredible vocalists you'll ever hear. She's amazing. But if I said, "Okay Daniel, do you want to just call Mandy and tell her we're gonna punch out? This thing's too hard, it's too expensive, there's just too many other things going on. We can't do it. Do you want to tell her that?" What's an easier question to say "yes, let's quit" to? Is it easier to quit to the big picture? Or to say let's quit on Mandy? No one wants to pick up the phone and call Mandy. Daniel's not going to do that. I'm not. FRANK BLAKE: That's phenomenal. Is there a queue of these impossible problems that you're itching to get to? Or do they truly just come up as the occasion arises? MICK EBELING: There's two channels, or I guess two pathways, there's the things that we see that come to us, people reach out to us, or talk to us, or we're exposed to. And that's one pathway into these absurdities that we want to solve. But we've also realized that we are finding we can only absorb and be exposed to as much as we can be absorbed and exposed to. So we started to crowdsource absurdities, and started to ask other people what's absurd and what should be solved. And we asked the question and what's absurd, and then we ask who is your one? Because if someone just says, we should end poverty, that one doesn't get considered. But if we say, hey, let's solve this problem for this person, then we get a chance for that "help one, help many" lens. We look through it and say, "all right, that actually has the potential to help many, many people, let's solve it for one." We take outside input. We take inside input. We also are very open to things just dropping in our lap, and we go, "Holy cow, this is something that we were meant to address." FRANK BLAKE: So I know you've written a book, you have a podcast, and you have a website. If our listeners want to learn more about you, what are some of the things they ought to be looking at? MICK EBELING: Well, if you want to learn more about Not Impossible Labs, you can go to notimpossible.com If you want to learn more about the Music: Not Impossible Project, that Daniel and Patty and Dave and I have been working on now for ever so long, you can listen to a podcast that we did that has a whole bunch of different things that we talk about. There's an episode called Feel the Music. You'll hear Daniel having conversations and an amazing deaf percussionist named Evelyn Glennie. That's an amazing way to learn more about Music: Not Impossible. You can also see, if you go, we have a partnership with a company called Avnet and we did a big event with them on September of 2018. It was with the band that won best rock album at the Grammy's called Greta Van Fleet. And you can see the first massive unveiling of the Music: Not Impossible technology that Daniel has been working on tirelessly for the last five years. Unveiled through incredible bands and with an incredible partner, Avnet. We partnered with Jason Flom, Church of Rock and Roll, and Zappos — just this incredible group of people that came together to make this a reality. So, you can see some footage from that as well. FRANK BLAKE: Well, thank you and thank you, Daniel, as well. Thank you, Mick and Daniel, for spending the time, this is, it could go on and on, this is such a … what you're doing is so fantastic. I want to end with just the descriptions that I've read, I hope this is accurate, Mick and then, I'll ask you to comment on it. FRANK BLAKE: Your description of yourself as a storyteller, and a hacker, and a maker. Which to me is, if we all could get a description like that for our lives, that would be a huge success. Is that an accurate representation of how you see yourself? MICK EBELING: Yeah. I think it's pretty accurate. I think also just a believer. I just believe that everything, I believe in humanity, I believe in people, I believe that we'll all be able to solve these problems. And I believe that the biggest problems in the world will be solved by the most unsuspecting characters. MICK EBELING: If you met Daniel at a bar right now, and asked him oh so what do you do. Daniel how would answer? DANIEL BELQUER: I work with humanitarian technology. And then people like, ah, but they don't understand so, I have basically to explain a lot of stuff, which is funny. It's really hard, you know. I think we're living on a time where we are kind of exploding boxes, and going towards different directions. Professionals are going out of specific fields and reaching other areas as well. And I think that's all very exciting and actually has a lot of potential to create these solutions for specific human problems. DANIEL BELQUER: It's all about collaboration and vision. This is what I think is amazing and very inspiring for everybody, me included. MICK EBELING: The world's problems are gonna be solved by dreamers. I think if you can believe you do it, and then you put the hard work into doing it, I think that's the recipe. FRANK BLAKE: Wow, I can't thank you enough for sharing your insights and the incredible things you are doing for real people. It truly, truly, inspiring. So, thank you very much, Mick. Thank you, Daniel. DANIEL BELQUER: Thank you, Frank. FRANK BLAKE: I hope all our listeners take time and learn more about both of you personally and your organization. Thank you.