Lights, camera, and real world action

After attending the HATCH conference, blogger Wendy Smolen shares her biggest takeaway - great ideas always start with passionate people. And each person has a story. She shares the story of Mike North, an industry vet at Discovery Digital currently working on In the Making, a new show on YouTube.
October 15, 2014

I just spent four days attending HATCH, a unique conference for people who are doing amazing things to create a better world. From building sustainable cities or a girls’ orphanage in India to building innovative new apps, the common thread was making the world a better place for our kids. It’s something we all say we want to do, but often lose sight of it in our quest for business success. One of my biggest takeaways from HATCH was that great ideas always start with passionate people. And each person has a story. Here’s Mike North’s.

Anyone who has ever been bitten by the TV bug understands the allure of the camera. Mike North was no different.  In the midst of earning his Ph.D. in engineering from University of California, Santa Barbara (where he already earned a BS and MS), he answered a mass email from Beyond Productions to spend a week in Australia building a set for an Animal Planet show and being on TV! It was a week that changed his life. He came back, finished his PhD, received a $3.5 million grant for his project in biomimetic nanotechnology, and still decided to leave academia.  “I didn’t want to get locked in to academia,” he said. “But I also didn’t want to go into industry. So I did what a lot of Ph.D.’s do. I went into a post-doc program and procrastinated.” Six months later, a call came from Discovery Channel asking him to host a show. He was now Doc North.

The premise of Prototype This! was to invent things everyone wants, no one has seen, and are hard to make. For a (cool, but) nerdy engineer, it was a dream. North was 27 years old.  Not satisfied with the small Discovery budget to build a shop on Treasure Island, CA, he contacted companies he knew, and didn’t know, to get $500,000 worth of equipment donated, assembled a crew of the best brains from his engineering, science and robotics friends, and started filming. The team ideated about 500 inventions, of which Discovery approved 16 to create one season of Prototype This! and then cancelled the show. “Maybe we were ahead of our time,” says North, with only a little irony. “But if you missed it, it’s now on Netflix.”

Another chance meeting led him to Rodger Raderman, cofounder of the innovative Nukotoys, and North became his CTO.  Raderman was also creating an organization called miraclefeet, to treat children born with club feet. Looking through his “Prototype This!” lens at the expensive braces that were commonly used for treatment, North once again combined technology and resources. “I pulled together experts from Burton Snowboards and Stratasys 3D Printers and we prototyped a new brace that is now part of a larger collaboration of Stanford, Clarks Shoes, and Suncast. The brace is now on its way to change countless lives.” The need and meaning he discovered seeing his invention in use, led him to establish ReAllocate.org, a community that connects world-class talent to social impact projects and creates real-world solutions. “We focus on any group that doesn’t have access to resources,” he says. ReAllocate has since developed an open-source online platform for matching those that want help with those that want to help.

But Doc North’s story doesn’t end there. The camera still calls. And this time it’s for the kids. Mike is back at Discovery Digital working on In the Making, a new show on YouTube. “I go around the world and find people pushing the envelope of innovation and technology, says North. “Imagining what the future can look like is pretty inspiring.”

Innovation, collaboration, and passion. When we all work together, we can change the world.

What’s your big idea? Send it to wendy@sandboxsummit.org.

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