A Look Into the Future With Dean Kamen

The entrepreneur best known for inventing the Segway wants to create better medical devices and health technologies.

Dean Kamen. Credit: DEKA Research
Dean Kamen. Credit: DEKA Research

Entrepreneur Dean Kamen is nothing if not prolific. He’s perhaps best known for inventing the iBOT, a stair-climbing wheelchair that eventually evolved into the popular Segway of the early 2000s. But Kamen holds hundreds of other patents for various health and medical devices, including water purifiers and prosthetic limbs—projects that he’s working on with his company DEKA Research and Development.

And he isn’t planning to slow down anytime soon. “We stay busy,” Kamen laughs.

Science Friday recently spoke with the inventor about the unconventional pathway he took into science and engineering, where he sees medical innovation going, and the motto he lives by.

How did you first get interested in engineering?
I think I got started in a much more unusual way than most people I know. I sort of got into it as a kid, because I wanted to make things that weren’t available at the time, and in order to make them, I had to learn some engineering. I learned a little bit of electronics, I learned a little bit about mechanics, and I learned a little bit about how to make things and run machines—a lathe and a mill and a machine shop. I did that long before I academically studied any engineering or math or physics.

When I was in college, I had an older brother in med school who was a pediatric hematologist, and he needed ways to deliver very, very tiny amounts of drugs to very, very tiny babies. The equipment in the hospital was pretty much made for adults. So he asked if I could find a way to make a drug delivery system do what he needed. That was one of my first businesses and projects. [This was the AutoSyringe.]

Did you find it hard to go down the route of becoming an inventor?
I found school very high-pressure, very difficult, very frustrating. I didn’t know how to optimize my ability to learn what they wanted me to learn, on the schedule they wanted me to learn it, and take the tests they wanted me to take.

But if I had to go invent something, I wasn’t under pressure, because I could read that book and read it again and break my pencil and be frustrated but go back and read it again. I could do that without worrying that, on Thursday at 2 o’clock, there would be a test. And I could try to build something, and if it didn’t work, I could try again and try again, and no one was there to give me an F or a D or a C, and nobody was there to tell me, ‘you’re dumb.’ I could work at my own pace and work as hard as I wanted, as long as I wanted, until I made something that did what I wanted. I found school intimidating, and I found trying to do my own stuff engaging and empowering and exciting.

You’re probably best known for inventing the iBot, which was the device that eventually became the Segway. How did this idea come about?
Well, the iBot was a device to help the disabled community get around. I thought that the wheelchair is a very, very inadequate solution to a very, very big problem—which is that when people lose the ability to walk, mobility is only a part of what they give up. A human being is not a sack of potatoes that you can wheel around in a wheelbarrow. A human being has dignity, and a human being wants to look you in the eye, and a human being wants to take books off that high shelf, and see people in a crowd, and be able to use that sink and that stove and that copying machine, and reach over that counter at the mall. I thought, we’ve got to give people back that ability to stand up and balance and get around as full-size adults, not move them around like a sack of potatoes. And so, I said the problem to solve is not about the wheels, it’s about human balance.

We created an iBot, which, like a human, can balance on two little points on the ground—you can do it on your toes, the iBot did it on two wheels. And it really has had a huge impact on the disabled community, giving them independence and freedom and access.

And then we realized able-bodied people would think it’s pretty cool to stand on a two-wheeled device and let the machine do the balancing for them. So we turned the iBot, the medical product, into a Segway for the consumer.

“I think that the intersection of engineering, biology, and medicine allows things to be done that, 10 years ago, would have been considered science fiction.”

What’s the next stage or iteration of the Segway?
I’m excited to tell you the great news that, after all these years of trying to figure out how to get the Segway to the people who desperately need it, Toyota has just agreed to work with us to build the next generation of iBots for the disabled community and help us get it to the people who need it.

What other big projects are you working on?
As always, we [DEKA] are primarily working on medical products. We’re working on better drug delivery systems, better dialysis systems. We’re working on the iBot. We’re doing regenerative medicine. We’re working on ways to make pure water to be used in clinics and schools around the world, to give people safe drinking water.

What’s an area that you think is underrepresented in terms of innovation?
I think the area that’s going to see probably the biggest growth in the medical side over the next decade will be regenerative medicine. We’re trying to grow tissues, including skin and whole organs, like lungs and kidneys, and vascular structures, like fistulas. I think that the intersection of engineering, biology, and medicine allows things to be done that, 10 years ago, would have been considered science fiction.

Who are your idols or who has inspired you?
Mostly they’re scientists, not engineers, and most of them have been gone a long time. I find reading the elegance of their thoughts and how they got there incredible. Archimedes, Galileo, Isaac Newton, or James Clerk Maxwell. I think the basic physics, the basic mathematics that drives the world is just beautiful stuff to look at and appreciate and understand. And then applying it in the world of engineering is, to me, a consequence of really understanding the laws of nature.

What has been your favorite accomplishment so far?
Right now, it’s still FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology], my program to get kids—particularly women and minorities—excited about engineering and about careers in engineering. This program keeps growing and growing, and it attracts now hundreds of thousands of kids. We have events all over the world at this point. I think the FIRST Robotics Competitions are fantastic, and over the long run, they’re going to create a generation of scientists and engineers that’ll change the world.

I like working on all of our individual projects, because you put somebody who can’t walk in an iBot, and suddenly they’re looking you in the eye and getting emotional about it, or going up and down a flight of stairs and smiling from ear to ear.

What advice do you have for young people?
I think the same advice I’ve been giving every kid I know for 25 years: Learn as much mathematics and as much physics as you can. Learning mathematics is learning the language of physics, and learning physics is learning the rules that become the engineering tools you use—like Newton’s Laws and Ohm’s Law and the laws of aerodynamics. And then once you know those, you apply them in the world of engineering.

What is a guiding principle you try to live by?
Life is very short and we have very little time, so I believe you shouldn’t waste it on any project that isn’t really important. It may be very hard, you may not succeed, you may not finish it, but my guiding principle is only work on projects that, if you succeed, will have a big impact on people. Pick those difficult problems, work hard on them, and hopefully get somewhere.

Science Friday is honoring Dean Kamen with the Vanguard Prize for Leadership in Discovery and Research at our 25th Anniversary Gala on October 15, 2016.

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About Chau Tu

Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.

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