Dr Jordan Nguyen credits a swimming pool accident with changing the direction of his life forever. As a result of this, with his electrical engineering expertise, he has been able to change the lives of many in truly profound ways.
On the day Dr Jordan Nguyen’s life changed forever, Sydney was in the grip of a heatwave. Arriving at a friend’s suburban house party, the 20-year-old electrical engineering student flung aside his clothes and headed for the backyard pool.
“We were having a great time jumping off the diving board,” recalls Nguyen. “My mates and I started getting more and more creative with our dives, trying to impress each other.”
Keen to try a forward flip, he ran onto the board, but as he jumped the platform came loose and he was flung off-axis as he hurtled towards the water.
“I had my hands out, but somehow my head hit the bottom of the pool first. I felt this massive crunch across the back of my neck, and then I couldn’t move my head.”
He was rushed to hospital, where he was relieved to learn that he hadn’t fractured or broken any bones. However, the muscle tears in his neck made normal movement almost impossible.
“I had to lie flat on my back for nearly two days. I wasn’t able to sit up or roll over. That started to shift my view on everything.”
Nguyen knew he had been lucky to avoid permanent damage, and started thinking about how his life might have changed had his injuries been more serious.
“That was when I found out that [1 in 3] Australians has a severe or profound disability. That’s 1.4 million people who always require help with mobility, communication or self-care,” says Nguyen, who will be sharing more of his story at the virtual AHRI convention TRANSFORM 2021 next month.
“I decided I wanted to do something wild: build a wheelchair controlled by the power of the mind.” – Dr Jordan Nguyen, founder, Psykinetic.
Many of those people can’t walk. And, as Nguyen discovered, not all of them can operate conventional wheelchairs. They rely on electric wheelchairs they control with a joystick, chin-stick or by blowing into a straw.
Some people with severe physical disability can’t even use these techniques, making independent mobility impossible. Prior to his accident, Nguyen had been feeling directionless and was considering abandoning his studies in favour of something more people-focused. But now he saw electrical engineering in a new light.
“What if the things I was interested in, like robotics and AI, could play a role in improving lives? What if I could push the existing technology a lot further?”
Soon, an ambitious plan formed in his mind. “I decided I wanted to do something wild: build a wheelchair controlled by the power of the mind.” Over the three years that followed, he did just that.
Creating big ideas
Nguyen comes across as a regular guy with an easy charisma and a talent for demystifying technical topics. But what you may not immediately realise is just how tenacious and scientifically gifted he is, or how innovative his fledgling company, Psykinetic, has proven itself to be.
Over the past decade, Nguyen and his team at Psykinetic have not only successfully developed new iterations of that mind-controlled wheelchair but have also designed a musical instrument that can be played by blinking, coded the world’s fastest eye-controlled assistive communication software and engineered a device that makes it possible to drive a car using electrical signals created by eye movements.
And there’s more to come. To preserve our memories of loved ones after they die, Psykinetic is developing what it calls Class III Spatiotemporal Avatars: interactive, digitised versions of people and their stories captured in time and space.
“A lot of these ideas sound pretty sci-fi, but the amazing thing is that the technology already exists. It’s here. What’s exciting now is that we’re starting to really understand how it might influence our work and our lives.”
In parallel to all this, Nguyen has become a passionate advocate for advancements in inclusive technology. He works closely with individual families, disability organisations, aged-care networks and hospitals, and employs people with disability at Psykinetic.
Interacting with Australians living with disabilities has taught him valuable lessons, and he believes organisations of all kinds – not just those with a disability focus – could benefit significantly by becoming more inclusive.
“It’s not just the different perspectives that people with disabilities can bring, or their specific skills. It’s a type of drive that I’ve seen time and time again in individuals with profound disabilities that can be rare to find.”
This drive enables employees with disabilities to pick up skills quickly and get things done. “It’s a determination, a level of focus and a strength of mind that is truly extraordinary,” he says.
Now when Nguyen feels discouraged, he follows the example of his friends and employees with disabilities. “They’ve taught me to just keep going.”
Embrace the possibilities
Nguyen is optimistic about what lies ahead, not just for his company but for the entire Australian disability sector. The recent Australia-wide rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme will prove to be a game changer, he thinks.
“Now, instead of the government funding not-for-profits that provide services and technology for disability, the funds go to the individuals. Those individuals can then choose the services and the technologies they want.”
This shift has already created a more competitive market in Australia, which Nguyen says will foster innovation.
“The total funding for Australians with disability has increased, too, to over $17 billion a year. That translates to a lot of support for individuals and a lot of opportunity for providers. It means the space can dramatically improve.”
He says there’s a sense of excitement in the Australian innovation community.
“We’re living in the age of imagination, of possibility,” he says. He’s particularly excited about the next generation of inventors.
“Young people have an understanding of tech that previous generations just don’t have. They’ve grown up with smart technology; they don’t know a world without it.” And they’re motivated to make a difference.
“I’ve observed that a lot of the most talented individuals are going towards areas and companies that have a social or environmental impact on the world. Today’s young people want to know that their life is going to matter.”
His advice for organisations hoping to attract tomorrow’s ethically minded innovators is simple: “Be socially and environmentally responsible, believe in and empower your staff – and, above all, operate with integrity.”
A longer version of this article appeared in the July 2021 edition of HRM magazine.
Want to hear more of Jordan Nguyen’s story? Register to attend AHRI’s virtual convention, TRANSFORM 2021, on the 11th of August to hear from Joran and a lineup of other impressive speakers. Click here for more details.