Dean Kamen has invented hundreds of things, including the first insulin pump for treatment of diabetes. But he'll probably be forever known as The Segway Guy.
Kamen made his fortune developing medical devices, but gained worldwide recognition in 2001 when he unveiled his Segway Personal Transporter. At the time, Kamen predicted the Segway would have an impact on society similar to that of the personal computer.
And while that claim remains debatable, the Segway has made significant inroads in niche markets. It's gained acceptance in police departments, military bases, warehouses, corporate campuses and industrial sites — despite the highly publicized and unfortunate device related death of the British tycoon who bought the company in 2009. The man, Jim Heselden, 62, accidentally steered the Segway off a 30-foot cliff and into a river while riding on his estate, about 140 miles from London.
But let's get back to Kamen, whose resume extends far beyond the Segway. The son of an illustrator for Mad Magazine and Weird Science, Kamen is an inventor, an entrepreneur and an autodidact who advocates for science and technology.
A Blur of Activities
Kamen holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents and is credited with improving thousands of lives through his health care inventions including wireless control medical devices, water filtration systems, infusion pumps, portable dialysis systems … not to mention the Segway.
But one of his proudest accomplishments is founding FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The organization is dedicated to motivating students to understand, use and enjoy science and technology.
CMSWire sat down with Kamen at the recent Maker Faire in New York City, a festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness. Kamen gave the keynote address, which was entitled “Investing Today for a Secure Tomorrow.”
Sobel: How did a college dropout, the son of an illustrator for Mad Magazine become one of the most prominent inventors in the world?
Kamen: I did, in fact, not finish college. But I think when people hear that, they often get the wrong impression. I value education and learning, and to me, college was like having a team of my own private tutors. The only slight problem was the fact that I wanted to learn in my own way. I preferred to personalize my education, which was not compatible with the regimented schedule of classes and exams. But as I’ve often said, college was the best five years of my life.
You reference my father, a graphic artist. When I was about six years old, I remember noticing that all of the other fathers in the neighborhood were out playing ball. My father didn’t play ball outside after dinner. He would sit at his easel in his studio at our house and go to work.
After seeing so many of the neighborhood fathers outside playing ball, I remember going up to where my father was working, sitting down and telling him that I felt badly for him. I told him that I watched the other fathers come home from work and get to play, and it made me feel bad for him that he didn’t get to do the same. I remember his response so clearly. He turned to me, put down his brush and said, “Don’t ever feel sorry for me. I’m the luckiest guy around. When I’m not working for my clients, I’m painting. That’s because I love what I do. All these other guys only get to play in the evenings or on the weekend. I get to love my work. And while I may have to do more hours of it to earn a living, I’m doing something I love.” Then he then gave me the most memorable piece of advice: “If there’s one thing you do when you’re young, figure out what you love. Then figure out how to build a career doing it.”
I’ve never forgotten that. I’m somebody who’s absorbed by my work. And, again, I think some people misunderstand that and think that’s a problem, or I that I don’t get a chance to have fun. To me, life is a blur of my activities. As my father taught me, it’s only a job if you’d rather be doing something else.
Sobel: In 1982 you founded DEKA Research and Development. DEKA, an acronym derived from Dean Kamen, develops original inventions and provides research and development services for major corporate clients. At DEKA you led the team that invented the iBOT, a battery-powered, self-balancing, multi-terrain wheelchair. Did this lead to the development of the Segway?
Kamen: Years ago, before the development of the iBOT, I witnessed a young man in a wheelchair at our local mall struggling to go up a curb. I later saw him attempting to pay for an ice cream cone, but he wasn’t able to reach the counter due to the restrictions of his wheelchair. It was a profound thing to witness, and I came to believe that a wheelchair is an inadequate solution to mobility problems. The iBOT allows a disabled person to basically do all of the ordinary things that you and I take for granted that people can’t do in a wheelchair, like go up a curb or be at eye-level with someone. We spent years developing the technology (e.g. a complex array of gyroscopes, computers and a battery-powered motor) to enable the iBOT to self-balance.
One weekend, almost as an amusing side project, some of my engineers and I realized that if you re-configured the iBOT (e.g. took off the seat, widened the base) and used the same balancing technology, you could have a fun device that could perhaps help people get around in a fundamentally different way. So, yes, the Segway was a result of the iBOT technology. The funny thing to me is that, despite spending my entire career developing medical devices, as a result of weekend side-project, I’m now known as “the Segway guy.”
Sobel: After founding DEKA, you created FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science and technology. Can you share with us abit about the birth of FIRST and some highlights?
Kamen: FIRST is all about changing our culture … for the better. More than 25 years ago, I saw a culture where celebrities and athletes were celebrated and revered, and scientists and engineers were not. I believed then and still believe now that our collective future depends on getting more kids from every background interested and turned onto science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), so that they might seek education and careers in these fields.
We are in a heated competition for the hearts and minds of kids, fighting for their attention in a world that too often points them in the wrong direction. That is a loss for all of us because somewhere out there are kids who can potentially cure cancer, eliminate infectious diseases or build an engine that doesn’t pollute. They may not know it yet, but they are the future, and we’ve got to work hard to help inspire them to pursue those paths and provide them with the skills to seize opportunities.
FIRST’s mission is to develop tomorrow’s science and technology leaders by engaging students in fun, exciting robotics and research programs that build STEM skills through mentor-based learning, inspire innovation and foster team-building, self-confidence and leadership.
We actually just celebrated our 25th Anniversary, and this season is projected to be our biggest yet. More than 400,000 students in over 80 countries around the world will participate this year, and a network of more than 180,000 adult volunteers who mentor our teams, run our events and essentially make FIRST work worldwide supports our programs. We’re also proud to offer a Scholarship Program that has over $20 million worth of scholarship opportunities for our high school students. To be eligible, all a student has to do is participate in a FIRST Program.
Sobel: One of the most popular features of the FIRST events, is the robotics competition. One thing you talk about is how it helps kids develop leadership skills? Can you tell us about that?
Kamen: We, as a society, frequently justify our massive commitments to sports programs in schools by explaining that theyteach kids critical and value “teamwork skills.” Ironically, if they apply those same skills in the classroom rather in their extracurricular sports programs, it’s frequently referred to as cheating. First does recognize the importance of developing teamwork and leadership skills. We are confident that we are fostering those same skills in our sport-at a high level in and out of the classroom.
Sobel: Of the many things kids learn at FIRST leadership is at the top of the list. While our readers are mostly executives, leadership is something you never stop learning. If you could give one piece of advice to those seeking to increase their leadership potential, what would it be?
Kamen:Leadership is about giving other people enough resources, support and self-confidence to accomplish goals that they would not otherwise attain and perhaps even be unwilling to attempt.
Sobel: Finally, there was a recent article in Huffington Post entitled "Melting Pot Urgency: Attracting and Educating Entrepreneurs for the United States." In the article author Amy Wilkinson says that project-based learning (PBL) is on the upswing. “In PBL, students work in teams on real-life examples.” and“The idea is to teach students how to work and learn together on projects (using) entrepreneurial systems, where people collaborate all the time.” According to Kamen a key goal for FIRSTis for “students learn about math, science, and engineering, and acquire lifelong critical reasoning skills” Can you talk about PBL and its impact on education and ultimately industry?
Kamen: Most of what kids get in school is at a pretty high level of abstraction, especially in math and science. We don’t make kids sit through 12 years of lectures before we let them onto the field to experience the fun of playing a sport, so why do we do that with math and science. They grow up wondering, “What is this useful for?”
Our global future depends on our collective ability to ignite a passion in young people of all types of science, technology, engineering and math and open doors for kids, so they might seek education and careers in these fields. Just as football and basketball cannot be truly learned or appreciated as a spectator only, science and engineering should not be viewed as a spectator sport. Kids should be involved.