Mike Williams, an inventor who made millions but turned homeless, was given a second chance when he met Dr. Jong L. Chen. The Taiwan-born Chinese American urologist operated on Williams’ prostate injuries from a beating and later became a business partner with Williams, who had the idea of inventing a new drop and go homeless sheltering PODs.
Their story was reported by Los Angeles Times and will be made into a movie. The story of Mike Williams given a second chance through the help of Jong Chen is a modern day example of the Good Samaritan.
Beaten Up at a Park
Last August night, Williams awoke from brutal kicks to his midsection at the rose garden at a Sacramento Park. He was beaten by two thieves until he passed out. They grabbed his backpack and took his laptop – which he’d been using to chronicle his unexpected journey.
“My biggest fear was that I’d lose my faith,” Williams told Los Angeles Times. “But it took those guys to beat me up for me to meet Dr. Chen.”
Williams the Inventor and Entrepreneur
Growing up in a small pink trailer in Pollick Pines, Calif., Williams was on his own by 14, when he started working two jobs while attending high school. He served in Vietnam, and then made his way to the San Francisco Peninsula.
During a dental checkup in the early 1980s, Williams asked his dentist whether he had a camera that would let him look inside patient’s mouths. When Asti said he didn’t, Williams replied: “I want to make one.”
According to LA Times, Asti, who was Williams’ business partner, said the intra-oral camera was “one of the best things to come around in dentistry.”
Williams’ company received investments, but was not able to reach profitability; in 1991 they sold to Canoga Park-based New Image Industries.
Williams persisted in his entrepreneurial spirit and established a new venture manufacturing intra-oral dental cameras. After five years, his company generated more than $13 million in annual sales. But the expenses outpaced the revenue stream. It was again sold to New Image.
At this time of his career, the Williams and his family lived in a very wealthy neighborhood in Atherton, Calif. Their home had a pool, tennis court, and horses. Yet, he had to move his family, because the second venture didn’t work out.
Then, Williams founded another dental technology venture, but this time around his venture partner joined with other investors to edge him out, resulting in the biggest loss of his career.
Despite holding about 20 patents – including one for the first intra-oral camera and another for a wire catheter camera for heart surgery – Williams found himself at rock bottom.
Williams said the real estate market destroyed a lot of his financial capabilities, and his home went into foreclosure in 2009. There was a group that defrauded him in Florida, taking about $2.5 million from him in a scam.
Then, Williams fell deeper into debt for caring for his aging in-laws. The bank foreclosed on the family’s home in 2009. His 28-year-old marriage dissolved the next year.
At 60, Williams became homeless. “I packed my car, told my kids to come and get what they wanted and I basically hit the streets,” he said, according to NPR.
He loaded a few belongings into his 2004 Nissan and drove off. He thought he would find a job washing dishes and a place to live, but he didn’t. For a while he lived out of his car, but once he fell behind on the car payments, he took shelter in a dumpster.
Although William’s three grown children helped when they could, they had their own families to take care and other limitations.
“I found out that I was really nothing, and that was very hard for me to grasp; the fact that no one wanted me around,” he told NPR. “I was something nobody wanted to see or be involved in, and that crushed me.”
Williams told LA Times how he felt after having to beg day by day – “just to get enough, $15 or $20, and then I would cry…I would cry out of shame.”
The Good Samaritan
After the severe beating sustained at the Sacramento park, Williams then walked two miles to an emergency room. He didn’t have health insurance and waited for 19 hours before a doctor saw him.
The emergency room doctor told him that he had a hernia and pneumonia and referred him to VA hospital. There, a caseworker who had finished her work saw Williams and promised him that his homelessness will end. She got him the last remaining bed at Salvation Army shelter, where Williams learned that his prostate also had been torn.
This injury led Williams to a 72-year-old urologist, Dr. Jong L. Chen, who later operated on his torn prostate. To Williams, the beating seemed like a blessing in disguise.
Chen had been practicing medicine in Sacramento for four decades while advocating for democracy and human rights in his native Taiwan. He is a graduate from Kaohsiung Medical College and immigrated to the U.S. in 1970.
As Williams was about to undergo surgery, Chen heard him chatting with the operation room technician about the nanometer range on the laser. During the post-op visit, doctor and patient discussed Williams’ inventions – among them tiny cameras that peer into the heart and joints – and his latest big idea.
This idea came to him while he was living in the dumpster. The lidded container which Williams had lined with cardboard, had provided his only privacy. He envisioned a human alternative: molded, durable survival pods that could be used for housing after disasters or to get the homeless off the streets.
(Courtesy of Mike Williams)
Partnership with Jong
Chen later called Williams at the Salvation Army shelter and asked him to bring all his patents to a breakfast meeting at McDonalds’.
According to Taipei Times, Chen said that while it is incomprehensible to him that someone like Williams could end up on the streets, he was also fully aware that helping the inventor did not address the prevalent problem of homelessness.
“So I asked Williams how come an educated man like himself did not try to find a way to help himself and others like him…After hearing about the despair and torment he felt when being looked down upon, I pledged to offer my assistance if he could think up a solution,” said Chen, reported Taipei Times.
During that meal, Williams talked about his idea to invent a secure, safe place for the homeless and people that are displaced in society.
Then Chen took a leap of faith. Chen’s acceptance stunned Williams.
For Williams, that moment when they sat together and sipped coffee is of “unbelievable solace and peace”.
Today, the two men are partners in a start-up venture that aims to use William’s street insights to help others. Chen has brought Williams out from the shelter and helped him secure a small apartment; the doctor pays the $1,000 monthly rent. He also took Williams to Macy’s, picking up leather dress shoes and a charcoal-colored suit, according to LA Times.
When they shook on the partnership, Williams did not let go.
“To me, a patient is a patient, no matter what kind of status [they] have,” Chen told NPR. “They need the help, [and] we can give him the help.”
According to Taipei Times, Chen said the faith of his Protestant parents had played a major role in shaping his life perspectives; money had never been a priority in his life and that it did not matter whether he was paid for the treatment he provided.
“In this society, as long as you keep doing [what is right], your efforts will never go unnoticed,” he said.
A Second Chance
Williams now works out each morning at his apartment complex gym. For his street friends, he made turkey sandwiches at Thanksgiving and soup and pasta salad at Christmas.
Each Thursday, the business partners meet to discuss their venture, Steps Housing Systems Inc. (Chen is chairman; Williams is chief executive.)
According to LA Times, the 6-by-8-foot stackable pods, molded from poly-resin fiberglass, will come pre-assembled – with a chemical toilet, solar power capabilities, plexiglass doors and windows and battery-operated heaters and fans. A model complete with a cellphone charger, sleeping bag, water and enough nonperishable food to last 30 days will wholesale for about $4,500.
Williams has reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and private businesses to see if the pods would work for them. A manufacturer is in the process of pouring the prototypes.
The inventor who’s been given a second chance envisions airport rentals for weary travelers. A portable pod “hotel” would provide homeless clients with meals, showers, laundry facilities and security.
Chen told Taipei Times that he hopes to find a Taiwanese company to manufacture the pods – whose prototype is expected to be launched within three weeks – during a planned visit to Taiwan in April.
“In this way, I hope Taiwan can also participate in the project,” Chen said, according to Taipei Times.
The business dual are forming a nonprofit so donors can sponsor pods for the needy. Chen said that a number of churches and non-profit organizations had expressed an interest in the pods.
Williams told LA Times, “I’ve never had a friendship like this,” he said. “My heart has changed.”
(Courtesy of Mike Williams)