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How America's Best Inventor, Dean Karmen, Is Helping Thousands Of U.S. Kids

How America's Best Inventor, Dean Karmen, Is Helping Thousands Of U.S. Kids

Dean Kamen and teen

Flickr/Disco Techs Team 1099

Dean Kamen and "Ashley" a member of the Disco Techs robotics team from Brookfield and Newtown High Schools.

Dean Kamen might be best known as the inventor of the Segway personal transportation vehicle, but, as cool as that is, that's not even close to the most amazing thing he's done.

Kamen has spent his life solving some of the world's most difficult challenges and holds a mind-boggling 500 U.S. and foreign patents. He founded a research and development company, DEKA, based in Manchester, NH that today employs about 400 people.

Kamen was recently the 2013 recipient of the prestigious James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award, joining previous honorees like Bill Gates and Gordon Moore (Intel co-founder and creator of Moore's Law).

Kamen was granted this award for inventing a scope of things that have improved life on Earth including

  • the first portable drug delivery device for providing drugs that previously required round-the-clock hospital care.
  • a portable dialysis machine
  • an insulin pump for diabetics
  • a vascular stent
  • the iBOT -- a motorized wheelchair that climbs stairs
  • a prosthetic arm for maimed soldiers
  • and a portable energy and water purification device, called Slingshot, for the developing world.

Now he's taking on the problem of how to inspire kids in the U.S. to enter careers in the math and sciences. The non-profit he founded, called FIRST (which stands for For Inspiration Recognition of Science and Technology), is just about to award $18 million in college scholarships to at least 900 high school students in 2014.

It will also support science programs and competitions in 29,000 schools in 80 countries, with over 1 million kids, and 121,000 professional scientists participating, Kamen told Business Insider.

We had a chance to speak with Kamen about the First program, his career, the life of an inventor. Here's a lighted edited transcript:

Business Insider: Tell me about FIRST. What's the goal there?

Dean Kamen: FIRST is a real chance to be a cultural change agent that will prevent this country from sliding from its leadership position held for 200 years. We've been a beacon of the world that innovation works, solves problems, creates wealth. [That won't continue] unless kids get into science and tech in a meaningful way and have as much passion that as they have for sports and entertainment. We want to reverse that trend and create a generation of people that sees innovation and are willing to take reasonable risks of time, ego, money to ty and create a new world better than one we have.

BI: Of all the things you've invented, do you have any personal favorites?

DK: I'm asked that a lot over the years and I've grown more comfortable with my answer: I don't know, it hasn't happened yet.

In any category, is like comparing apples and oranges. But here's two extreme examples:a prosthetic arm that we made that literally can give someone their right arm back. It allows someone that gave that arm for this country to do things we take for granted, like scratch their nose or pick up grape or eat in a restaurant with some dignity.
That project will help a few hundred people and I hope it never becomes a big global market. But if someone needs it, it matters very much to that person.

At the other extreme, we're building a water system that can get rid of water-born pathogens at a relatively low cost, pennies a day. That's a piece of technology that could help a few billion people. The water machine, with the support of the Coca-Cola Company, will be by far most impact on the most people.

[NOTE: After Kamen invented the a next-generation Freestyle soda-fountain vending machine, Coca-Cola committed to setting up the Slingshot water purification machine in 15 developing countries worldwide].

BI: Who do you admire as the biggest innovators in the tech world?

DK: When I think of great icons for tech industry, I'm not one of them for a lot of reasons.

What these people do is get some massive success, like Amazon or Google, and can bring enormous scale. They don't do what I do, just create it and then hand it off to big global partner. They create a whole company. A Jeff [Bezos] or a Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] build something and then lead a multibillion juggernaut. I'm not in the league with those kinds of people.

They have companies in filled with smart and technically excited people and can come up with self driving cars and space ships and I'm always rooting for them. It takes people like that with those kinds of resources and courage.

BI: What advice can you offer on creativity that allows you to keep tackling such difficult problems?

Most people, once they get good at something, they make iterations and make a career out of that.

We're good at trying to try some crazy idea that probably won't work. When you look at the number of times we ever have a huge success, only every couple of years, and we're always working on a dozen projects at time. Instead of looking in the mirror and saying "You're an idiot. Give up."

We say, "We've been at it for a few years and we're not smart enough to implement it yet." If we found 73 ideas that don't work, I protect my ego from facing catastrophic failures by saying it's all about timing.

You have to be that way if you want to play in a field were failure is so common. You have to be somewhat schizophrenic to wake every day and say, "Today it's going to work!" To get up optimistic every morning and when you go to bed at night tell yourself, "Well, I've been at this one five and half years and its still a frustration. But I knew that going in. I have a plan for that."

You have to be filled with unbridled optimism or you'll never even try to work on projects that seem so daunting.

BI: Is it harder today to invent The Next Big Thing than it was when you first started?

DK: Contrary to much of popular opinion, that says the so-called age of the individual inventor is over .. I would say its just the opposite of the way it was 20 years ago. Today you have the ability and access to computational power, or lab equipment.

Today a kid in high school biology lab can swab his cheek and do DNA sample. 20 yrs ago, that would have won you a Nobel Prize. People have access to more information tech in their pocket today than any advanced lab could have dreamed of years ago.

More than ever, the barriers to real innovation are lowered. All that's necessary is imagination and courage.

BI: What's the biggest, hardest invention that you really want to create but fear you can't?

I never say never. But the the one field, the one invention that has intrigued me forever is from H.G. Wells. The one thing I really, really want … I want a time machine. I want to go talk to Archimedes or Galileo or Einstein, or go forward and know what the world looks like in 100 year. I'm sadly afraid that's not going to happen in my lifetime.


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