ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
This past week, one of our producers read a story in the Los Angeles Times that seemed almost like a movie pitch. Fade in - interior - California, early 1980s. Mike Williams is an inventor without an invention. A cracked tooth has sent him to the dentist's office, and he asked if he can see it.
MIKE WILLIAMS: Don't you have any cameras or anything to really show people their teeth? And he goes, no, no, we don't need that. We've got a mirror. And I'm going, well, how are you going to show me my teeth then? And he goes, you know what, Mike, that's an excellent idea.
SMITH: Eureka. Mike Williams set about inventing the first intraoral camera, and it was a big success. From there, he formed a company and sold it.
WILLIAMS: For about a million dollars.
SMITH: Other medical inventions followed.
WILLIAMS: And from there, my career took off. One day, David Letterman called me and said, I just read about your little camera. Can you come on down to Rockefeller Center in New York and bring your cameras to the studios and set them up?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")
DAVID LETTERMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, tonight, for the first time anywhere, the Late Night Monkey Cam Mobile Unit, Zippy. Paul?
SMITH: I forgot about the monkey cam. The monkey cam was amazing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")
LETTERMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I think it's easy to see that this technology has limitless applications.
SMITH: Mike Williams was successful, appreciated, in demand. But just like in a movie, it wouldn't last. Jump cut to the 2000s.
WILLIAMS: The real estate market destroyed a lot of my financial capabilities, and my home went into foreclosure. I had a group that defrauded me in Florida, took about $2.5 million from me in a scam. And it just kept going and kept going, and I couldn't stop it. Just everything crumbled. And then my wife asked for a divorce. And when she asked for a divorce, I packed my car and told my kids to come and get what they wanted, and I basically hit the streets.
SMITH: Mike Williams, successful inventor, was now homeless. For a while, he lived out of his car, kept a journal on a laptop. But once he fell behind on his car payments, he took shelter in a dumpster.
WILLIAMS: I found out that I was really nothing, and that was very hard for me to grasp, the fact that nobody wanted me around. They really didn't want me sleeping next to their cars or in their backyards or out in the parks. That I was something nobody wanted to see or could - even be involved in. And that crushed me.
SMITH: And I understand that one night, you were sleeping in the park and - well, tell me the story.
WILLIAMS: Well, this particular night, I was roaming the streets of Sacramento. And down on the capital city state mall, there's a very large rose garden there. And I thought, man, this would really be a nice place to just hang out. So I hid underneath the fountain of the rose garden. I had my laptop in a bag. And about 1 o'clock in the morning, I was woken up with two guys that were kicking me and trying to pull me out and grabbing me. And I fought as best I could, but they kicked me so hard that I passed out. They gave me severe hernias and destroyed my prostate.
And I laid there. I just laid there and cried. And, of course, I lost my laptop. I lost all of my notes and all of my pictures from the streets and whatever. I got up, and I walked to Sutter emergency room. And I waited there for 19 hours. I was a homeless guy, didn't look too good, didn't smell too good, and in a lot of pain and no insurance. And finally, they took me in. And little did I know that that beating was truly the beating that changed my life.
SMITH: It changed his life because Mike Williams' injury would eventually lead him to Dr. Jong Chen.
DR. JONG CHEN: He come into my office complaining all of the pain in the lower abdomen.
SMITH: Before Dr. Chen performed surgery on Williams' damaged prostate, the two struck up a conversation.
WILLIAMS: He asked me, he says, well, what did you do with your life? How did you become homeless? And I started telling him the story. And I said, as a matter of fact, I'm the inventor of that little wire catheter that you're using.
CHEN: And I asked about his education background. I said, well, what a waste - this gentleman, you know, walking on the street.
SMITH: What a waste. Dr. Chen saw a way to help Mike Williams get off the street.
WILLIAMS: And he called me at the shelter one day, and he asked me out for breakfast.
CHEN: He almost cried, you know? I said, oh, go ahead. It'll be on me.
WILLIAMS: So he said, I want you to bring your patents. I want you to bring whatever you're working on. And so he picked me up. We went to McDonald's. And he said, well, what are you doing now? What's your new invention? And I told him I want to invent for the first time a secure, safe place for homeless people and people that are displaced in our society. I want to give them a safe place to live.
SMITH: Mike Williams came up with this idea while resting in one of the only safe places he could find: a dumpster. He'd drawn up plans for a self-contained survival pod.
WILLIAMS: It's six feet wide, six feet tall. It's got a single bed in it. It's got a chemical toilet.
SMITH: And Dr. Chen signed on. He agreed to form a company with Mike Williams and start creating a prototype pod. They envision other applications too. FEMA could use these shelters for emergency housing. Airports could rent them to travelers with long layovers. And it all got started with an unusually generous contribution.
CHEN: To me, a patient is a patient no matter what kind of status you have. They need the help, we can give him the help.
WILLIAMS: Dr. Chen not only took me out of the shelter, he took me downtown and got me a really nice apartment. He took me to Macy's and bought me all new clothes, a whole new wardrobe. He still treats me for free. He just can't do enough. Truly an amazing, amazing man.
SMITH: So, Mr. Williams, this is an amazing opportunity. Very few people get even the first chance that you got to invent something and build a company around it. You've been given another chance with a new business partner, a new idea, a new start on life. How do you personally change the way you approach the world?
WILLIAMS: With humility and prayer every day.
SMITH: You weren't humble before?
WILLIAMS: I was humble, but I was rich. And I think that's probably what the problem is with our leaders, is that once you have a separation of class and you're rich, you can be humble, you can say all the right things, you can pretend like you care, but are these people really the ones that are pulling people out of the streets, give them a second chance, give them a job, loving them the way Dr. Chen love me because they're rich. And I'm just telling you that Dr. Chen is the example for America.
SMITH: That's inventor Mike Williams who, along with Dr. Jon Chen, is developing a portable housing pod for the homeless.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.