April 22nd, 2014
11:40 AM ET

Naïvete is Key to Innovation

Turns out you can do a lot of really smart things, as long as you're clueless.

At Not Impossible Labs, we've already created a device to let a paralyzed painter create his art, using just the movement of his eyes. We made it to the Sudan and printed a new arm on a 3D printer for a teenaged boy whose arms were blown off in the war - and he fed himself for the first time in two years. And pretty soon, we'll have a device that will allow patients suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease to type on a computer - just by thinking.

We didn't have any fancy labs for any of this, or gigantic budgets. We didn't go through insurance companies or medical labs. We made all of these devices for maybe a couple hundred bucks apiece - some for much less. (the Brainwriter, as we're calling it, includes a homemade EEG device based on a prototype that a couple of our team members fashioned out of some electrodes, two nine-volt batteries, and an old sock, in their kitchen, at 2 in the morning. I wasn't there, but I'm told there was some whiskey involved as well).

In each case, the experts told us that what we were doing just couldn't be done.

Fortunately, we didn't listen, or didn't hear them, or ignored them, or were oblivious, or all of the above. We went ahead and tried anyway. And what do you know. It worked.

This all started when I met a graffiti artist named Tempt, who was paralyzed with ALS. I was a film producer, with no experience whatsoever in the field of technological medical devices. But when I learned how he was communicating with his family - they'd run their fingers over a piece of paper with the alphabet printed on it, he'd blink when they'd get to the letter he wanted, and, painstakingly, he'd spell out a sentence - I was moved, and angry, and a whole lot of other things. And I blurted out to his father, "We will find a way to get Tempt to paint again."

See, I was just clueless enough not to know that that was impossible.

Funny how that works.

MORE at CNN.com/Impact. 

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