Inventing a better future

Dean Kamen of Segway fame keeps cranking the ideas while paving the way for others

I got inspired last night, the kind of inspiration where after seeing a dinner speaker, instead of wanting dessert, you want to rush home and invent something. The speaker was Dean Kamen, a serial inventor perhaps best known for his high-profile Segway personal transporter, but who also has invented a whole host of other cool things, starting in high school.

Kamen’s not a super articulate guy -- despite his recent successful appearance on The Colbert Report -- but he exudes the two qualities that people who change the world must have: passion and persistence. His inventions have always been driven by simple necessity, by seeing a problem and wanting to find a better way to solve it.

In college, he invented a medical device called a “wearable infusion pump.” He produced them in his parents’ basement and sold them directly to doctors. From there, he went on to invent a groundbreaking insulin pump for diabetics, and ultimately sold his company to Baxter Healthcare.

What’s really interesting about Kamen is not that he holds more than 400 patents, not that he continues to tinker long after he’s made his millions, and not that he’s helped millions of people with life-threatening conditions (there were some kids in the audience who’d benefited from his diabetes gear).

What’s really interesting is what I’d call his parallel vision. Unlike many entrepreneurs, Kamen doesn’t just think small is good and big companies are lazy and evil. He likes being small and scrappy, but also likes working with big partners, who are better at marketing and distribution.

And unlike many entrepreneurs, he’s not just focused on what he can invent himself, but also committed to building the pipeline of young talent that will create tomorrow’s inventions. Case in point, he founded a hugely successful program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) which rallies more than 130,000 high school and younger students each year in regional robot and Lego competitions to get them excited about science and technology.

Finally, Kamen is equally focused -- in parallel -- on the devices he invents and the more subjective challenges of getting people to adopt them, changing minds and the natural human resistance to change. He recently invented low-cost simple devices to generate clean water and electrical power for developing countries, and has been frustrated by the slowness of the world’s aid bureaucracies to adopt them, given how superior to current solutions he feels they are in every way.

“I’m like a cockroach,” Kamen says. “You can stomp on me and stomp on me and stomp on me, but if I believe in it, I’ll keep coming back until I’ve succeeded in proving it.”

And if this weren’t enough to make me want to give the guy a standing-O, his presentation was. He said he’d been approached by the DoD a year ago and asked to build an order of magnitude better arm for the many soldiers in Iraq who’d lost limbs to IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

After several months of work, collaborating with researchers at top universities, Kamen’s team had gotten a prototype working just the day before. The video of the first demo had been e-mailed to him just before his presentation, and he played it onstage. It showed a person wearing an artificial arm -- just a lot of metal and wires, not covered with anything, picking up a pen and paper and writing something down. The audience was speechless. And so was Kamen.