Kamen's roles as inventor and advocate are intertwined -- his own passion for technology and its practical uses has driven his personal determination to spread the word about technology’s virtues and by so doing to change the culture of the United States.
As an inventor, he holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, many of them for innovative medical devices that have expanded the frontiers of health care worldwide. While still a college undergraduate, he invented the first wearable infusion pump, which rapidly gained acceptance from such diverse medical specialties as chemotherapy, neonatology and endocrinology. In 1976 he founded his first medical device company, AutoSyringe, Inc., to manufacture and market the pumps. At age 30, he sold that company to Baxter International Corporation. By then, he had added a number of other infusion devices, including the first insulin pump for diabetics.
Following the sale of AutoSyringe, Inc., he founded DEKA Research & Development Corporation to develop internally generated inventions as well as to provide R&D for major corporate clients. An advanced prosthetic arm in development for DARPA should advance the quality of life for returning injured soldiers. Other notable developments include the HydroflexTM surgical irrigation pump for C.R. Bard, the CrownTM stent, an improvement to the original Palmaz-Schatz stent, for Johnson & Johnson, the iBOTTM mobility device, and the Segway® Human Transporter.
In the year 2000, Dean was awarded the National Medal of Technology. Presented by President Clinton, this award was in recognition for inventions that have advanced medical care worldwide, and for innovative and imaginative leadership in awakening America to the excitement of science and technology. He was also awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2002, and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005.
In addition to DEKA, one of Dean's proudest accomplishments is founding FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use and enjoy science and technology.
Paul Kedrosky Interviews Dean Kamen
Hi, I’m here with Dean Kamen today. We’ve got a really interesting guest in our discussion series. I’m not even sure, Dean, exactly how best to introduce you. This could get very long or very short, but I’ll start with saying, you know, an inventor and entrepreneur, myriad awards, all kinds of honorary degrees. It’s a long, long list of things ranging from the Lemelson MIT Prize for Inventors, the National Academy of Engineering, the Fifth Annual Heinz Award in Technology, and of course, Inventor of Mobile Dialysis product. The segway that I’m sure many folks will know as well as man behind the, I think, highly successful FIRST robotics competition that’s now nationwide. Thanks for doing this.
Kamen: Thanks for inviting me. I always enjoy finding an opportunity to promote FIRST. I suspect your blog would be a very effective way to get some people that are already predisposed to appreciate the need for FIRST.
Kedrosky: Great, well so let’s … let’s sort of start backwards and then come forwards talking about FIRST and some of the things and sort of the goals behind it and how it sort of, to your mind, helps drive people to think more about invention and entrepreneurship. But, I was trying to find a way to give people a sense of what it’s like to be sort of, you know, an inventive fellow like yourself. What’s a … rather than asking where the ideas come from, what’s a day in Dean Kamen’s life like these days?
Kamen: Well, every day is different. I think that’s one of the attributes of being involved and doing things that haven’t been done before. On the one hand, the bad news is there’s no roadmap. You can’t show up at work, open your schedule and look for the part where it says 9:30 finish standing boring meeting; ten o’clock have brilliant idea. It doesn’t work that way. My day is typically showing up, getting to walk around and poke my head into right now nearly a dozen really interesting projects, talk to some really smart people, typically here about a couple of exciting possibilities that sadly are not quite done yet, and always hearing about more sadly some great idea that we had yesterday or a month ago, or year ago that’s still tantalizing but still not working. Hearing about all the new problems that have arisen since the last time I was there. I would say a day in the life of anybody trying to do things that haven’t been done before and spending a day learning how to get comfortable with frustration, and failure, and confusion and being bewildered by why something that appeared so straight forward and simple turned out to be something that, in fact, nobody else was able to do either. But, if you can get used to dealing with that kind of environment, I think every once in a while smart people get over that problem and tenacious people stick with it. Suddenly, every once in a while, after 10 years, there’s another instant overnight success. One of your ideas becomes a piece of technology that actually will be able to deliver insulin to this diabetic or dialyze that patient at home, or whatever you’re working on that for many years alluded success and for many years was greeted by cynics and skeptics suddenly becomes something that everybody wants and needs, and you can feel very good about supplying it to the world.
Kedrosky: Have you always been as … I won’t say comfortable because nobody is comfortable with confusion, but I mean have you always had a high tolerance for putting up with the kinds of things that you describe, which I think as you say, are fairly typical of someone whose in the business of creating things that hadn’t been around before. But, is that the way you’ve always sort of known yourself to be as long as you’ve been able to sort of think back about that sort of thing?
Kamen: No. I mean my father has told me my whole life that he … and even when I was too small appreciate it. My parents, who would refer to me as the human irritant. He’s my father. He likes me. I think both of my parents have told me that even as a very, very young person. If I got my mind around I wanted to try something or do something or learn something, I would get focused on it. Nothing would dissuade me from that. No efforts by them, sadly, or others would convince me to go do something else until I either accomplished what I wanted to accomplish or came to the conclusion myself that I can’t do this or it won’t work. But … so I would say, getting comfortable at failure … I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten comfortable with that, but the other part of your question, being tenacious, sticking to what seemed like difficult problems, not even knowing what you’re going to try next but just sticking with it for better or worse is, I think, a characteristic more of my personality than my education.
Kedrosky: That’s sort of where I was going with this. I wanted to take it over. Did education help you in that regard? Was it a neutral force, or did it get in the way?
Kamen: Well, funny. I think it’s both. I think that’s … there are great things about education. If you don’t use something as efficient as a textbook to learn, you know all the things that stumped great geniuses over the last couple of thousand years. I mean, we constantly refer in engineering to Archimedes’s principle of buoyancy. Well, you know what? That guy died more than two thousand years ago. While you’re a smart guy and I’m a smart guy, if I were born today and had to go develop a whole capability to make new things, if I had to take as much time out of my life to discover or invent some of these ideas that we now can quickly learn from a book, some of which were available two thousand years ago. I doubt I’m as smart as Archimedes. I probably never would get there, but even if I could get there, it would probably take me a large part of my life as I’m sure it took him. So, I think education in terms of finding efficient ways to immediately start out by standing on the shoulders of all the giants that came before us and using education as a platform to get all the baseline stuff done efficiently is incredibly valuable.
On the other hand, I think whether it’s unintended consequence or who knows what if you spend the first decade or two of your life going to a school, going to a place where they present the problem and they present this solution, that’s called education. That’s called learning, and then they test that you got it. While on the one hand, you might have very quickly come up that curve to be ready to stand on the giants of everybody before you, you’ve also learned that the answer is in the back of the book. That you’re trying to get to the place somebody already else got using their roadmap, or their text book, or their logic. You know learning is about what the other guy has already accomplished. The consequence of that, I think, is a lot of people, as they near the end of what we typically call their early education, they probably have lost some of that capability to think on their own or deal with problems where there isn’t a roadmap to get them to a solution. Or, there isn’t, you know, we almost learn in school how to get to the answer that they want you to have almost presupposing that the answers already out there, and it’s for you to just present to the teacher. You know you learn how to read maps, but when Lewis and Clark went where they went and did what they did. We still know them by name because they didn’t have the map. They gave us the map. There’s a huge difference between learning how to read the map and now making it quite easier to go west. But, learning how to read maps isn’t going to necessarily make you better in discovering the place for which there is no map. In fact, if you spend all your time reading maps, you’ll go all the places we’ve already been.
Kedrosky: That’s very nicely put. So, was it hard for you? I mean you left before completing, I think, at WPI? How hard of a decision was that for you?
Kamen: Well, I mean maybe in the context of the conversation we’re just having I got to a place where I said wow I know a bunch of stuff.
Kamen: I’ve learned a bunch of basics in physics and math and engineering, but you know I’ve learned enough basic stuff. I bet if I go out and look at some new additional problems that people have and try to apply some of what I’ve now learned I may be able to go to a place that people haven’t gone before to present a solution that hasn’t been presented before. Maybe it will work. I’ll make a better solution to a current problem, and I decided I’d give that a try.
Kedrosky: I mean it strikes me … you can take this too far. I don’t want to belabor the whole education point. I just thought it was interesting that an awful lot of people I run into … I get this question all the time from young people, I guess, who are thinking that they want to be entrepreneurs, which is always interesting because I always figure if you really badly want to be an entrepreneur it’s more that I should have to try and stop you because you’re so damn eager to do it. But, leaving that aside for a second, I get a lot of people who say well, I think I need to go and do some … and they’ll name some degree to go do … to go become entrepreneurial. I guess at my experience in my own sort of companies and companies that I that I’ve watched people around me create and looking at other interesting entrepreneurs and inventors, it’s more the reverse is that the formal stuff, in many ways, seems to get in the way. They’re constantly trying to find a way to get on with what they want to do. It’s kind of a patient impatience I guess there. They want to patiently get at … they’re impatient to get at the thing they want to patiently get at.
Kamen: Well, I mean maybe you and I are in violent agreement I think. Certainly, without a basis, without knowledge, without certain skill sets, your reading and math and the history and awareness of what’s out there, it would be really hard to be a successful entrepreneur. But on the other hand, if you get stuck in learning all of that stuff, or as you said, the kind of person that says to me I want to be an entrepreneur but I’m not sure what to do, I’m going to go to school and take a course, my answer to each of those people is if you are uncomfortable stepping off the edge because you don’t know what’s at the bottom or the other side, if what you want to do is go learn more about it before you do it, there’s nothing wrong with that. The world needs lots of people like that, academics and people to work in companies that optimize things. But, I don’t think you’ll ever be the entrepreneur because after you learn whatever it is you’re going to learn, you’re going to go to take that next step. But, if you’re really truly trying to do something entrepreneurial, there’ll be a load of questions. Will it work? How will you do it? What’s the best …? Against all those questions, they’re into approach is one, let’s go back and try to learn how somebody else did it. A perfectly reasonable approach. It’s what most people do.
And then, there’s the other approach which is I now recognize that I’m not going to have most of the answers to most of the questions before I go out and try to do what I want to do. That’s part of what it takes to be an entrepreneur. You get comfortable with that knot in your stomach. You get comfortable, as I started this conversation, with the fact that you’ll be frustrated. You’ll fail. You’ll do a lot of things because you didn’t have the experience, the knowledge to do it … what turned out later to be the right way first. But, that’s okay. For some people, that is okay. For some people, it’s not, and for the people that it’s not okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think they should just recognize what their strengths are, and I think if you really are an entrepreneur and you’re really itching to do things, you shouldn’t get caught up on the fact that historically you were given lots of problems to which there was an answer or preferred answer, the answer was [inaudible]. I think you … if you really want to be an entrepreneur, you have to say okay. I’m now going to have to change the metrics by which I make my decisions, and I’m going to go out and do things knowing that I might not have optimized it. I might have to do it again, but I’m not going to be judged by the answer in the back of the book. I’m going to be judged by history. I’m going to be judged in five or ten, or fifteen or twenty years looking back at all the other proposed solutions or all the other people that were groping around in the same uncharted space as I was. Did I get to a better place or to a newer place faster than would have gotten there otherwise? If so, that’s a good thing. It’s just you’re not comfortable but you might just grope around in the darkness and come back. You probably don’t want to be an entrepreneur.
Kedrosky: So, let me … you may not … I read in the comments. You were down here in San Diego, I think, last week at the Tech Med and among other things talking a little bit about energy and FIRST. I want to sort of throw a thought by you and see if you … what you think about this idea. I often argue that we’ve, in a sense, been spoiled in many ways by this kind of unique properties of entrepreneurship … being an entrepreneur of information technology in that, you know, there’s this incredible acceleration largely driven by Moore’s Law where things just … things happen fast or adopted fast. We can see in our own … not just in our own lifetime but in the space of a couple years rapid, rapid change. But in many of the domains where you’ve been most active, certainly in medicine and even more so now in energy, things just don’t happen that fast. And so, in many ways, it’s … to someone who is kind of brought up on the sugar rush of “dot com” style entrepreneurship, medicine and energy, you know, might sound interesting. Which, when you realize it can take from basic science to launching a product, it could be decades or even longer. That seems to put people off. Do you think there’s an issue in there in that we kind of have to relearn that entrepreneurship happens at different speeds in different markets, not expect everything to happen as fast as it does in IT?
Kamen: It’s really funny that you say that. I’m not trying to flatter. You’re the first person that’s ever brought that up in a conversation about entrepreneurship and what’s going on now that I’ve had. I typically bring that up because sooner or later in the conversation, you know, people talk what’s next or they compare, you know, the “dot com” era, etc. I’m typically the one that says now wait a second. The “dot com” business and it’s not good or bad, it’s an observation not a value judgment, happens when a good idea, a really good gets turned into, you know, any one of the startups out there on the basis of a small group of people doing something very different. It typically takes very little capital to prove it out, and you can displace what was there before it relatively easily. There’s a whole bunch of characteristics about that which is why for a decade the “dot com” industry was moving so fast. Nobody knew where it was or where it was going. Then, as you say, sugar rush. It was just an exciting time. It added enormous value in the enormous human activities from, you know, the dissemination of knowledge to the efficiency of markets and buying and selling products. I mean it’s an enormously powerful thing. It’s not a value judgment. Again, it’s an observation.
On the other hand, I can’t think of any other human endeavor that’s more different than that than for instance building the infrastructure of the electrical grid of the United States.
Kamen: You know we picked 60 cycles, and we picked 120 volts. We picked two towns that are separated by this distance, and we picked a whole bunch of things. If you could go back and pick them again now, we probably would have picked different voltages and different frequencies and different styles of connectology. You would have done a whole lot of things differently. But the fact is, they’ve been around now for well over a hundred years, and we all know the price of trying to change a standard like that. The outcome has to be so overwhelmingly better than where you are to tear up all that stuff. And then, you look at industries, you know, like energy industry which unlike the “dot com” industry are so capital intense. If you know the power coming to your desk right now, is probably coming from a power plant that was built by your parents generation or your generation or some of us your great grandparents generation. There’s some coal burning plant a few hundred miles from you that’s been just spewing out electricity for possibly a hundred years.
Kamen: That’s a very different model. And now, the world is focusing on okay. We solved a way to get nearly infinite amounts of incubation anywhere very efficiently. Now, we want to upgrade our understanding and use of the distribution of energy. We want to do it in a way that’s environmentally friendly. We want to do it in a way … I mean we have all these wonderful aspirations. I think a lot of the people, frankly, a lot of young people that did so well in the era of “dot com” that now have learned a lesson in how fast they can create whole industries or change an industry, the information industry and are totally familiar with Moore’s Laws as it applies to something. It is those people that are now, you know, jumping into what are we going to do about the global environmental situation, the global energy situation? Part of me says that’s really exciting because those are the people that aren’t bounded by old thinking and old ideas. They have, frankly, the energy, the resources, knowledge, experience, the courage to go do this.
On the other hand, they may also … some of them may, you know, break their … take a few times and decide this is a different kind of a problem. You know, who knows? I think some will succeed. Some won’t. It’s going to be exciting, but I agree with you. You could probably … there are no industries that are more different maybe than upgrading the energy grid of the world or just our whole energy economy and the information economy. Similarly, you threw in medicine. And again, that’s one that’s even more interesting in a way because it’s … it has elements of both: proteomics, genomics, the kinds of imaging technology, a kind of new technologies that have come from other fields, now technology, and robotics and optics, and electronics and computational stuff. All of the other industries that have moved really fast and are suddenly all, you know, capable of making huge leaps in medicine run into the issue that … but we’re putting it on people.
Kamen: You’ve got this issue where if you make some new software program whether it’s a video game [inaudible] and it doesn’t work. Okay, or you make some new hardware problem and it doesn’t work. You take it back. They send you your $29 and you go home. But, what if you make an implantable medical device and it stops working? What if you … the third area you talked about, medicine is burdened by a different set of systems that dramatically slow it down compared to the … that’s the information age, not because of the infrastructure of the industry systems but because we’re dealing with very complex issues of human beings and their health. What’s good enough to launch a consumer product is probably not good enough to launch a medical product.
Kedrosky: Yeah, I always tell people that if you think it’s stressful or difficult to re-boot Windows 7, imagine re-booting your liver. I mean …
Kamen: Right; exactly. Yeah, you said it better than I did, but that’s exactly … I mean, you know for instance, when we went and made things like iBOT’s, wowsing the inverting pendulum problem to make a device stand out. It looks pretty cool, but it’s actually not that hard in terms of classical control theory and the engineering and physics isn’t that hard. Making it stand up is one percent of the work. Making sure that it doesn’t fall down at the worst possible moment, that’s the other 99 percent of the work. If you’re making a toy that can stand up and balance, you know you can do it in the afternoon with some parts that you could get, you know, from a used printer. Making a device that you would put your mother in and have her go rolling down the hallway or up and down a flight a stairs is a whole different story.
Kedrosky: So, let’s segway from here. We’re having a good … maybe a mind meld on this part of the subject. Let’s segway from here over to how we … sort of how that point gets driven to people and into people. It strikes me that in terms of dealing with young scientists and engineers that, you know, FIRST is kind of an arrow right at the heart of people in terms of, you know, here’s what it’s like to deal with the messy world of bits and to deal with it in a way that’s exciting and fun. So, maybe talk about the genesis of FIRST a little bit and then how it kind of fits into this picture of, you know, this sort of holistic world of entrepreneurship, not just the sugar rush of IT.
Kamen: Well, I mean, again, no pun intended, you … it is the perfect segway when you say how do you move from the world of we get this education and this life linear way. They give you the question. The answer is there. They’re going to tell you the answer. You look it up in the back of the book. Then, there’s FIRST. I remember the very first year we gave out all the kits of, you know, like we gave out just boxes full of junk, and motors, and strings, and bearings, and gears. One of the things, I’m not making this up. One of the teams opened the box; looked inside; saw all the stuff and asked where are the assembly instructions?
Kedrosky: Oh my goodness.
Kamen: We said to them, after trying not to laugh too hard, we gave you this pile of stuff, and we gave you a problem statement. Turn this pile of stuff into some kind of a little robot that with the help of a couple of human drivers is going to be able to go on that playing field and pick up more tennis balls in a two minute round than any other robot that’s sitting out there. You’re only constrained by you must use the stuff from this kit plus what’s on this list of other stuff you’re allowed to go get at a hardware store. But, the whole point of it is, we said there’s not only not an instruction manual with it, there’s not only not an assembly guide in there, we worked really hard to make sure that we have ambivalent scaled the alternative strategies.
For instance, we said if we gave them the basket that they have to put the balls in and it was two feet high and the robots are only allowed to be, for instance, six inches high, they’re all going to throw them up there, especially if the basket is big. If we allow the robot to be a foot high and the basket is only two feet up, they’ll all build an arm or something that will unfold and dunk, especially again if the basket is a little smaller. We said we took every design constraint that we had when we made the rules up so that the best engineers with the most experience would sit there and look at it and violently disagree with each other as to what’s the optimum solution here. We hope that we ambivalent scaled this project and problem statement so well that A) there is no right answer, and B) very smart people will come to very different conclusions how to make the “best robot.” We hope when we show up at the first tournament, although you all started with the same kit of junk, we hope that all of the finished devices will look so different from each other that nobody will believe you all started with the same stuff and the same problem statement. I’m happy to tell you it worked.
We had machines that were, you know, shooters, and climbers, and dumpers. We had people that built machines that would collect all the balls. We had ones that would … I mean there was no aspect of the challenge that everybody optimized the same way by saying well okay. For this, we do this. There were two wheeled machines, and four wheeled machines, and treaded machines, and sliding machines, and rolling machines. So, to me, the opposite of what you do in the interest of doing class and in your physics or math class. They give you the basics and you have to learn them. The opposite of that is okay. Now, we can do a problem statement, and there’s no rules. Now, you’ve got to take all that basic information that you’ve “learned,” all that education that you have and now go apply it to this new and different situation and see if you can create something that’s never been created before, a robot that will outperform the other robots, none of which you’ve ever seen.
The whole process of learning FIRST was essentially to build a microcosm of the real world of engineering and inventing. Namely, everybody I know that’s out there now trying to make a new product is sitting there saying I don’t have enough time. I don’t have enough money; don’t have enough resources; don’t know what my competitors are doing; not sure what the market really wants. I just know I’ve got to move fast, and I’ve got to do better than the other guy otherwise my project isn’t going to work. I think it’s that competition of ideas that allows the best ones to emerge and succeed that keeps raising the bar, which is why in every generation, you know, we’ve seen humanity has access to more and better technology than the one before it.
Kedrosky: It seems to me that the … I mean the key with FIRST and maybe this is where people like usual kind of get … kind of go off on a tangent, is that in a sense it has everything to do with robots but nothing to do with robots. It’s oh.
Kamen: Yeah, yeah; for sure. I mean we tell people it’s even a thinly veiled secret. It is blatantly clear. We tell them from the day of the kick off till the day of the finals hey everybody, FIRST isn’t about building robots.
Kamen: There’s lots of places you can go to school and learn the basics of how to build a robot. FIRST is about these kids building something way, way more subtle and important than that. Envelopment to their whole future whether they ever want to be a roboticist or even an engineer. FIRST is not about building a robot. It’s about these kids build self respect. They build self confidence. They build relationships with serious adults. They build an understanding that in the real world the answers to the big questions aren’t in the back of the book. You’ve got to get on complex teams working with lots of people exchanging very sophisticated ideas to try to move forward. I think the process of being involved in FIRST, not just for the kids, but for the parents, for the teachers, for the mentors and the coaches. The process is really a microcosm of life done in a fun way where you can afford to fail. As I said, since I failed, most of my projects would take a long time. It’s very painful. Kids can’t afford to fail in school as a learning experience. You don’t want to fail, but if your robot doesn’t win, so what? It’s a sport. It’s not like you were working for an airline or divine company and the wing fell off, or you’re working for a medical products company and the liver needs to re-boot as you said.
Kamen: In most of the real world of developing engineered products, you really can’t afford to fail. It could hurt people. It could hurt companies, but at FIRST you can get in a very short intense season of play, you can get a real taste of what the real world is like and all those dimensions I just talked about, and whether the robot really succeeds or not doesn’t matter.
Kedrosky: So, we’ve only got a minute or two left. I just thought maybe a good way to kind of wrap it up in this sense would be … when people say to you how do you know if FIRST is working? Are there kids that come to your mind right away? You say you know what? I’m amazed at how this changed this kid’s life or what I saw them do afterwards. Who pops to mind or what kind of examples pop to mind?
Kamen: So, you’ll think this is being politically correct, or I’m being weasely about it. But, I’ve got to tell you it’s not one kid; it’s not two; it’s not ten; it’s not a hundred but thousands. I literally mean thousands of kids have communicated to us over the years how it’s changed their lives. I’m sitting here with letters today from kids that tell me that they stayed in school. They went to college. They graduated college, and they’re coming back as mentors. The reason we have so many thousands of teams and so many thousands of mentors is because it had such a profound impact on everybody particularly the kids but on everybody. I can tell you here at DEKA where I’m not up to nearly 400 engineers in the last 10 years a lot of the kids that get out of engineering school we met because they started with the FIRST program. They get out of engineering school. They come here. They get white boarded by engineers. We like their style. We like their passion. They knew about us from the early days, and we hired them. I would … I don’t know the exact numbers, but I would say certainly every year that’s gone by since the first crop of high school students got out of college, every year that’s gone by more and more of the new hires here at DEKA are from FIRST alumni than anywhere else. I suspect most of our major FIRST sponsoring companies are having exactly the same experience which is why they support FIRST so much because trying to find and recruit good engineers is really hard and really expensive. You can adopt a whole FIRST team and play a whole season full less than what it cost a company to recruit one engineer.
Kedrosky: That’s a fantastic example. I’ll stop right here, but thanks very much, Dean. This has been a lovely discussion. I’m glad you took the time.
Kamen: Well, anytime, and hopefully as a result of your podcast we get more support. Thank you.
Kedrosky: It’s a fantastic thing. Dean Kamen thanks.
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