‘Everyone champions collaboration, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to do well’

5 Feb 2019

From left: Motivational speaker and explorer Mark Pollock with human rights lawyer Simone George speaking at TED 2018. Image: Ryan Lash/TED

Inspirefest 2019 speakers Mark Pollock and Simone George are helping unite the many efforts to overcome paralysis in order to achieve something incredible.

For some, simply waiting for someone else to achieve life-changing technology is not enough. One such person is Mark Pollock who, along with his partner and human rights lawyer Simone George, are attempting to change the lives of countless people across the globe.

Last year, the pair captivated the audience at TED 2018 with Pollock charting his incredible and challenging story, and how he has learned to flourish while living with two disabilities.

In 1998, he became blind but, with no intention of stopping, he went on to compete in ultra-endurance races across deserts, mountains and the polar ice caps. Not only that but Pollock became the first blind person to race to the South Pole as well as being a silver and bronze medal winner for rowing at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

Then, in 2010, a freak accident saw him fall from a second-storey window, resulting in a spinal cord injury that left him paralysed from the stomach down and facing the fact that he will likely never walk again. This ‘likely’, however, was enough to inspire him to explore the intersection where humans and technology collide in pursuit of a cure for paralysis.

Avoiding flashy sci-fi

Through the Mark Pollock Trust, the motivational speaker and explorer is setting out to use his body as a medium of research into paralysis and ways in which this can be overcome.

Pollock and George have worked closely with scientists led by UCLA’s Reggie Edgerton, the world’s leading authority on electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, to create an innovative collaboration using technology from NeuroRecovery Technologies and Ekso Bionics.

For three months in 2014, electrodes were placed on the skin on the lower part of Pollock’s back to deliver electrical impulses to his damaged nervous system while he walked in his robotic exoskeleton.

During that initial study, Pollock became the first person in the world with chronic complete paralysis to regain enough voluntary control to actively take steps in a robotic exoskeleton while having his spinal cord electrically stimulated. The work continues to be refined and developed today.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com ahead of his and George’s appearance at Inspirefest 2019, Pollock admitted that prior to his 2010 accident he hadn’t even thought about exoskeleton technology.

“I knew absolutely nothing about it. It didn’t cross my path at all because I was focused on adventure racing and I’d just come back from the South Pole. The other thing was that the technology wasn’t really out in the world prior to my accident. In fact, it was only some months into my hospital stay that Simone saw an article in one of those disability magazines.”

One technology that they were aware of was an attempt to allow the blind to see, but what they had come across hadn’t convinced them they were any closer to seeing a game-changer. When it comes to disability technology, the pair strongly believes in substance over style.

“If science is not patient-driven, you can end up with this amazing sci-fi piece of tech that isn’t actually of much or any use to a patient,” George said.

“For example, an exoskeleton like Mark’s is built to mimic human movement that, necessarily, must include instability. It is this instability that, in part, allows the body to retrain. A developer-driven idea might be the aim of using this exoskeleton at home and you might be able to walk from your sitting room to your kitchen, but you can’t make a cup of tea and carry it back.”

‘Innovation doesn’t happen by chance’

Through the trust in his name, Pollock is attempting to prevent misdirected efforts to help those with a disability by essentially offering his body to some of the world’s top researchers.

“In our travels, we wanted to find the best people, people who are pushing the boundaries, and we started to find them. For me, as a patient with my own body, I wanted access to interventions that were the least risky but with the maximum impact,” he said.

However, he admitted that the search was an enormous challenge in itself, with there being many separate efforts to overcome paralysis. “All of the great people that we found were really, for a whole host of reasons, only focusing on their particular area. We identified fragmentation and a lack of collaboration as an area that we could influence or that we could contribute to.”

When pressed on why he thinks this to be the case, he puts it to something pretty simple: being so focused on their own task at hand.

“When I’m doing my speaking engagements, [I hear that] every single business in the world champions collaboration, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to do it well. This is because everyone, even within one organisational structure, [has] their own agendas and incentives.

“[Innovation] doesn’t just happen by chance. You have to get a group of people who have it in their minds that they want to work together, and you need to have the support to make that happen.”

Overcoming ‘technoableism’

Another aspect to disability tech often left out of the conversation, according to a recent contributor to Siliconrepublic.com, is the voice of a person with the disability whom researchers are trying to help.

Posing the question of whether Pollock and George have come across the notion of ‘technoableism’ in their dealings with researchers, Pollock said that while he thinks it is very important to be inclusive in research, there needs to be some ability to move back from it, too.

“As a patient, you think we need to be doing more with the nuts and bolts and sitting in the labs so that you’re helping the scientists run their lab,” he said, “but there’s a real value in shining a light on their story, which ultimately gives voice to the patients and the scientists, and I think that’s where we’ll be able to influence things.”

The pair’s art for storytelling will be coming to Inspirefest this summer, with George adding that they are very excited to tell of their experiences to a crowd unlike many others they would have spoken to so far.

“I’m just looking forward to being there and really admire it as an event that’s incredibly strong for its representation of women and diversity in general,” she said. “I think it’s one of the best things that’s happened in Ireland and we’re really, really proud to be a part of that.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.