‘You’ve got to make the science fair as exciting as the football final’: Dean Kamen
Image credit: Nick Smith
With more than a thousand patents to his name, technology advocate and inventor of the Segway Dean Kamen is one of the most influential innovators of his generation - yet innovation and invention are two very different things, he says.
As all the technology history books will tell you, Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research & Development Corporation, New Hampshire, US, is best known for inventing the Segway. In the two decades since it hit the market, the ‘electric, self-balancing human transporter’ has become ubiquitous, finding uses in virtually any pedestrian application where there is a need that sits in the gap between walking and requiring a golf-cart. You see them in airports. They’re used as police patrol vehicles. They’re used in sports, tourism, broadcast, security, mobile rescue, logistics - the list goes on.
As his transporter turns 20, Kamen doesn’t want to be known just as the ‘Segway guy’, unless you talk about what (for him) is the invention’s real application: the gyroscopic technology underpinning the iBot self-balancing wheelchair that he describes as “a mobility system restoring freedom and dignity”.
Kamen is something of a living legend in the technology innovation space and E&T caught up with him after he delivered the keynote address at the 3DExperience Works conference in Nashville earlier this year. In his lecture, the 69-year-old engineer drew on themes centred on a lifelong career in innovation and invention, as well as stressing the need to maintain the pipeline of the next generation of STEM personnel as a means of maintaining both cultural and economic prosperity worldwide.
His opinions on these subjects are so sought after that on winding up his speech, he was pursued down the halls of the Music City Center by hordes of delegates and journalists eager to hear more. After his post-address press conference, in which he simply picked up where he left off on the stage (“I keep running out of time wherever I go”), Kamen held more ad-hoc discussions before being whisked away by his agitated itinerary people to his private plane.
When you’re the inventor of a household-name product that has achieved design-icon status, the rest of your career risks getting overshadowed by that one thing. This might explain why the man with the informal honorific ‘America’s inventor’ starts his presentation with a timeline of his medical inventions that include portable dialysis machines, drug infusion pumps and prosthetic limbs.
As an entrepreneur, he founded DEKA in 1982 to focus on “improving lives through medical innovation”. It’s a company he still leads today, calling it a place where “no idea seems too big”. He’s been a TV presenter on the scientific breakthrough show ‘Dean of Invention’, and he’s also the founder of the First Robotics Competition (FRC), which since 1989 has evolved from a regional US-based team-building programme for schoolchildren to learn how to build robots, into an international annual competition involving thousands of teams from more than 80 countries and with more than a million contestants. It may have started off as being all about robots, but today the First programme serves as the medium through which “kids can create their own future”.
With his infectious enthusiasm for discussing technology, coupled with his reputation for being a guru on the subject, Kamen is more than willing to share what he knows. To say that he is generous with his knowledge would be a massive understatement. From the minute he strides onto the stage to a rapturous welcome, he defines, explains, theorises, illustrates and shares every point he makes. Inevitably he lands on the subject of innovation, which he states categorically “is so much more than invention”.
By definition, he says, “invention is, at the patent-office level, the putting together of a system of things that is non-obvious in a way that hasn’t been done before”. With all the technology at our fingertips today, he goes on, “there’s an infinite number of ways in which this can be done”. In 2018, he notes, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued its ten-millionth patent, a milestone that would seem to imply that “there are millions and millions of great inventions out there”. Yet for Kamen – himself holder of more than 1,000 patents – “there are very few things in a lifetime that we can call genuine innovation”.
He illustrates his point by going back in time to examples such as “fire or the wheel. I’m joking here really. But in my lifetime, if we look at the things that change the way we live, work and play, then what we’re looking at is the internet. That’s innovation to me. When most people think about innovation, they tend to think of those crazy techno-geeks in the corner doing weird stuff. But they’re not innovating. They’re inventing.”
To make innovation happen, the invention has to be presented to the public, “or in some cases to the government if it’s a regulated thing, or to industry”, following which there needs to be broad-based acceptance that what is being proposed represents a fundamental change to the way we do things today.
For Kamen, this is the critical characteristic of innovation, although he is quick to point out that “people are very reluctant to change. It’s in our biology: we’re risk-averse. If there’s a rustle in the reeds over there, is that the snaggle-tooth tiger that’s come to get you? People are afraid of the dark. They’re afraid of the unknown. Which is why it’s not good enough to sit in the corner and say you’ve made a better widget. You must figure out how to make that better widget understood by the public. You have to figure out a way of getting it to the public in a meaningful way. You must scale up the ability to make and distribute it. There has to be an acceptance that it is worth changing what we do today: and acceptance that the new process is actually better.”
This process, says Kamen, is a “rare event”, requiring much more than “just invention” to make it happen. It requires the combined motivation of the next generation of technologists. To achieve such an aim, Kamen founded in the 1980s his non-profit organisation First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which was based on “a simple premise. Every responsible person I knew 30 years ago – and it’s worse now – every smart person in industry or government leadership and education realised the pipeline of kids that would become world-class engineers, scientists and mathematicians was shrinking at a time when there was a need for more and more sophisticated capabilities.”
With the need for STEM professionals increasing, “everybody said that what was in front of them was an education crisis. But I said: ‘No, it’s not. We have great schools. Everyone has a great teacher they love. What we have is a culture crisis.’”
In a free culture, he contends, “you get the best of what you celebrate, and what we celebrate is the Superbowl and the Academy Awards. We celebrate sports and entertainment, and I love that. I love baseball too, and it’s a national pastime. But it’s just that – a pastime. What are we doing as a national core? How do we get kids as excited about being on the varsity thinking team? What do we do to get them to be more passionate about using the muscle upstairs?” he asks, pointing to his forehead.
‘There are very few things in a lifetime that we can call genuine innovation’
At this point Kamen quotes the inter-wars head of research at General Motors, Charles F. Kettering, who famously said “a problem well stated is a problem half solved”. This is because for him, the problem of where the next generation of engineers was going to come from had been defined wrongly. “If kids show up to school as passionate about getting picked for the robotics teams as they are about getting on the football team, then maybe we can enlarge the pool of kids that are open-minded and excited about technology, change the culture and get the schools to be passionate about this, too.”
Having restated the proposition, all Kamen had to do was essentially dress up technology as a sport and he would have solved the problem. Looking in more detail at the reward culture of education, Kamen also noticed the physics teacher who during the day “covers everyone’s work with red ink and tells the students they are wrong”, but at three o’clock turns into the sports teacher that everyone likes, “encouraging, motivating, giving out medals to everyone. You’ve just got to make the science fair as exciting as the football final.”
If you can do this, says Kamen, you will be stepping into a world in which “everyone can turn professional. There aren’t a million jobs open in the NBA or Hollywood. Yet we are starving for engineers. Every company I know that makes tech is desperately looking for smart young people. We’re told we have an education crisis, that technology is going to eliminate jobs. I’ve never met one person who works at a tech company that thinks we’re eliminating jobs. What might be happening is that we’re eliminating careers for people that don’t have technology skillsets. Yet the answer is to give these kids a path at an early age so they can take advantage of all these career opportunities we are creating. That’s what my organisation First is here to do.”
This carving out of career pathways is something that resonates personally with Kamen, who freely admits that he was “not a good student. Some kids, you can give them a textbook and they can read the stuff and get an A on the test. That’s different from understanding it, but even so, if you give me a book... well, I’m a very slow reader, so when it comes to new concepts it will be hard for me to get familiar with them and understand them. When you look at an elementary science book, it’s got Newton’s Laws, electricity, magnetism. Each one of these concepts was for me so fascinating, and yet it would take me days, weeks, months to understand the basics. But I also realised that if I could really understand these concepts on a different level to what you needed to pass a test, I could use them to solve problems and create new things that didn’t exist before.”
This means Kamen, rather than becoming an inventor as an alternative to all other options before him, “started doing these things because I thought it was the only thing I could do”, In stark contrast to his medical student brother, “who had sailed through high school and university getting all these qualifications”, Kamen dropped out of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “But all the while I was building equipment for my brother that he needed, and I realised that if I could solve problems at my pace and come up with solutions that weren’t in textbooks, then maybe I could add value.” After giving him all the reasons why he shouldn’t go down his chosen path, Kamen’s parents “fully supported my decision, even when I installed a machine workshop in the basement of their house”, where he lived the untutored dream of following the inspirations of those he considers the great historical innovators: Archimedes, Galileo, Newton. “When you read what these guys did, it’s astounding how, by observation, they gave us an understanding of the whole universe.”
However, it was to be the familial nurturing that was to instil the desire in Kamen to give something back by encouraging the next generation of innovators. He says there’s a reason his proudest achievement – First – has grown to the extent that there are now 200,000 mentor volunteers, 2,700 corporate sponsors, 80,000 schools and more than a million school children involved. For him, it’s a simple matter of outreach. “We’ve now spun out in so many communities that it’s almost impossible to claim you can’t participate due to local availability. Everybody that participates gets more out of it than they put in. The kids get a whole new appreciation of science and technology, while the corporates get to realise they’re building a bigger pipeline, while getting to do their scouting at an earlier age. They’re getting to see which of the kids they want to give summer internships to, which ones they want to support through college. It’s a community that teaches everyone about technology and professionalism and gives kids an opportunity to pick a career that is exciting to them.”
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