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The Arm Race: A Not Impossible Story

Dedication to doing good and the technology that’s moving prosthetics into the future

Welcome to Not Impossible Stories, a 10-part miniseries that makes the impossible… not impossible.

Founder and CEO Mick Ebeling and the team at Not Impossible Labs are dedicated to changing the world through technology and story and have teamed up with Thrive Global to share stories of amazing technology seeking to make the impossible… not impossible.

When Johnny Matheny graduated high school, his parents began fostering children with special needs. They showed him the importance of caring and giving back. So when Johnny lost his left arm to cancer in 2005, he knew he had to find a way to help others.

Johnny went to his prosthetist and asked to be placed in any study available working on prosthetic arms. He said,

I told my prosthetist I wanted to pay my life forward, so any study that may or may not work, just throw me in.”

This lead him to become one of the first people to use the most advanced prosthetic arm ever made. The arm, called the Modular Prosthetic Limb or MPL, was developed by Justin Sanchez and the government agency DARPA, and is the first arm to be completely controlled by the brain.

Justin’s team and the groundbreaking arm are now helping Johnny do things he used to love to do, such as hunt, as well as try new things, such as learning to play the piano. Johnny feels immense pride:

“To sum everything from beginning to today in one word: amazing…I used to always consider myself just an old backwoods country hillbilly. Now I’m being classified the most advanced robotic amputee in the world.”

Justin has also considered this one of the most amazing experiences in his life. He says,

“One of the most impactful things that I’ve ever experienced is when they tell us that their life has been transformed by this technology. It’s one of the most rewarding things that one could ever do.”

To learn more about how the MPL works and the story leading up to it, listen to episode 4 of the Not Impossible Podcast available now.

Q&A with Mick Ebeling, Founder and CEO of Not Impossible Labs

Q: You have some hands on experience in prosthetics with a project you did, Project Daniel, can you talk more about that?

ME: Late one night I read a story by Alex Perry in Time magazine about a young boy from Sudan named Daniel who had lost both his arms in a bombing. When he woke up he said, “If I could die I would, because now I’m going to be such a burden to my family.” When I read that story I was sitting at my kitchen table 30 feet from the bedroom of my 12 year old son. I couldn’t fathom him saying what this boy Daniel said. At Not Impossible, we believe if you recognize something that’s absurd, that has to change, regardless of whether you have any experience doing it. You commit and then you figure it out. So as I read that story, I realized I had to do something for this young boy. That was the moment Project Daniel really started.

I began building this incredibly brilliant team of misfit geniuses and mad scientists. We came up with a low cost arm that could be printed entirely by a 3D printer and that we could bring to Sudan. Exactly four months to the day since I first read Daniel’s story I was at a remote refugee camp in Sudan, watching him feed himself for the first time in two years.

Q. Justin Sanchez talks about how rewarding it is to hear how the technology he developed has helped so many people change their lives. What is it like for you to see and hear how the technology you’ve developed at Not Impossible has changed people’s lives?

ME: Listening to Justin’s story and what his team made for Johnny, reminds me of that moment I watched Daniel feed himself for the first time in two years. The technology that we made was so rudimentary, but it allowed Daniel to regain something he lost. Being able to throw a ball, feed yourself, or pick something up are basic things that you take for granted until you see someone who had that taken away from them. Daniel was able to transcend being dependent on his brother and his friends to now having some semblance of independence. Watching Daniel go through that experience was a magical moment that I got to watch over and over again while we were in the refugee camp.

Q: Although the technology behind the MPL is extremely advanced and developed by a large government agency, how can people use this story as inspiration to create change as an individual or small team?

ME: The technology that Justin and his team are working on is truly mind-boggling, but the point of the story is not the mind-boggling, ridiculously high tech nature of what he’s doing. It’s the fact that he’s taking technology and using it for a very fundamental need. These things are clearly expensive now, but that inaccessibility only lasts for so long. Moore’s law says that technology doubles in speed and halves in price every six months. So right now you get to witness the future knowing that you’ll have access to that type of technology eventually. The important thing is to start to stimulate and nurture your thoughts and ideas about what you could do, regardless of how big or small of a bank account or an organization that you have around you. 

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