Last Saturday in Vancouver, Canada, Simone George was one of the selected few to speak at TED Global 2018. A human rights lawyer from Dublin, her work has significantly contributed to her country’s ongoing domestic violence legislation. That alone makes Miss George a superhero for women and children who experience abuse and violence. But this is not why she was invited to speak at TED this year, alongside Mark Pollock, who shared the stage with her. Mr Pollock is an Irish explorer, athlete and author who also happens to be the love of her life. Together, they are on a mission: to cure paralysis. And the important word here is "together".
I have known these two since we were classmates at an executive education programme in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government many years ago. Like anyone else who knows them, it is impossible to consider one without the other. This is something the TED audience realised very quickly as they shared their story: an unusual mix of adventure, falls, science, technology, love and above all, realism.
Let me give you a bit of context here. Mr Pollock was born in in Northern Ireland in 1976. He was five when he lost sight in his right eye and 22 when he became totally blind. Despite this disability, he represented his country and won medals in the Commonwealth rowing championships, ran six marathons in seven days in the Gobi Desert, completed a marathon at the North Pole from Everest base camp and took part in a 43-day expedition race to the South Pole. Not bad, right? But this is not all.
Two falls changed his life forever. First, he fell for Miss George. Then at 36, he fell from a third storey window onto the concrete below. His spine was broken. People around him – friends, family, doctors –thought he was going to die. Even he, for a while, thought death might have been the best outcome. She did not and never left his side. He survived and they decided they would hunt down the cure for paralysis together.
Months of work and research began to find solutions that could help the couple achieve their goal. Hope came from progress in spinal cord research and robotics. They got in touch with engineers at Ekso Bionics in San Francisco, who created a robotic exoskeleton that would allow Mark to train and remind his body what it was like to be upright and walking again. Then they met Dr Reggie Edgerton and his team at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who developed a method based on electrical stimulation of the spinal cord that has helped paralysed people move again.
Mr Pollock and Miss George became the creators and catalysts for a collaboration between UCLA researchers and the San Francisco engineers. The brainchild of this work first allowed Mr Pollock to walk passively as he was “carried” by the exoskeleton. But thanks to the combination of robotics and electrical stimulation of his spinal cord, he started to voluntarily “join in” with the robot as it stepped with him.
The couple are realists. Despite the best progress that science and technology afforded, they knew that curing paralysis would not only require money to support research but more matchmaking between innovators in science and technology. This is why they founded the Mark Pollock Trust, to institutionalise the discovery and foster collaborations between extraordinary people who will help fast-track a cure for the 60 million people around the world who are paralysed and the 2.5 million who suffer from spinal cord injury, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Centre.
And this is the sad reality: 70 per cent of people who suffer from spinal cord injury are not able to go back to work and 40 per cent end up living below the poverty line. The need for solutions to help paralysed people is urgent, especially considering that in too many countries, paralysed individuals do not receive government support. Optimism alone is not going to fix this reality.
One of Mr Pollock’s favourite lines is: “I have problems. I am blind, paralysed, bald and from Northern Ireland”. Making fun of himself is not his only strength. He is above all a realist and so is Miss George: they accept the brutality of their situation while being fuelled by hope, all the while being proactive.
Beyond their own case, the current reality is also that finding solutions is not enough. Too often, great scientific innovation does not reach people outside scientific and medical facilities.
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To address this issue, Mr Pollock became one of the founding members of the Druid Collective, an initiative of the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. The mission of the collective is to unlock the potential of breakthrough technologies coming from science and engineering that can have a massive positive impact on people’s lives. The Druids do so by advising founders of start-ups and connecting them to the world’s leading technology experts, entrepreneurs, and executives.
The collective has also helped Dr Edgerton’s start-up, NeuroRecovery Technologies. Its flagship product is a stimulator that electrically charges the spinal cord, helping people who could not move their arms recover some autonomy by being able to, for example, grab some food or a glass to drink.
NeuroRecovery Technologies’ stimulator also allowed Mr Pollock to voluntarily flex his left leg. Unsurprisingly, this happened while Miss George was by his side. Building on this success, the collective will soon be launching its own Future Technology Award to increase awareness and support of innovators commercialising breakthrough science that can dramatically improve people’s lives and the environment they live in.
In 2014, the couple were invited to the White House. When Michelle Obama congratulated them, Miss George told her she believed there is “great power in two”, acknowledging the then president’s achievements were also due in part to his wife.
Mr Pollock is an extraordinary person. So is Miss George. There is no doubt about that. But it is as a complementary pair that they have been able to motivate extraordinary people working in isolation to join forces in finding a cure to paralysis.
Kudos to TED for inviting them both. In the meantime, I can only hope they succeed thanks to science, technology, realism and love.
Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ. He served as global head of strategy in health and healthcare and member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum