Interview with Dean Kamen, Segway Inventor and Founder of FIRST
Editor's note: To listen to this interview click here.
One of the keynote speakers at this year’s IPC APEX EXPO 2016 was Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and hundreds of other innovative devices. But perhaps most importantly, Kamen is the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which is recognized as the leading not-for-profit STEM engagement program for kids worldwide. Now in its 25th year, FIRST aims to “transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders."
During our interview at the recent show in Las Vegas, Dean spoke about why he believes the PCB industry should be paying more attention to the FIRST program.
Barry Matties: Dean, thanks for joining me today. First, tell me a little bit about what you're doing these days?
Dean Kamen: What I'm doing in particular these days, which I hope is relevant and consistent with this whole organization, is trying to create a movement in the next generation of kids around the world to help them appreciate how much fun, how exciting, and frankly, how many career opportunities will become available to them if they embrace technology with the passion that they embrace sports and entertainment and other things that seem to be the common denominator distraction for a whole generation of kids. I mean, they all work hard to be on that varsity team, but even if they're so good they get on a varsity high school team for football or basketball, even if they get a scholarship to go to college with it, what percentage of these kids will ever make a nickel playing professional sports? They devote an overwhelming portion of their growing up time to developing the skill sets to be experts, for instance, in bouncing a ball.
We have a million and a quarter kids involved in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) with the same passion as any other sport. They go to the competitions, they bring the cheerleaders and the mascots and the school bands. They live and breathe the technology and the excitement of the competitions, except at the end of the season, these kids have learned how to build electronics, how to write code, how to fix the code they wrote, how to debug those electronics and how to figure out why the smoke is coming out of that magic box.
This morning I got to speak to probably a thousand PCB people that represent most of the companies in the world that make all this “stuff” you need to build robots and new technologies, but more importantly, these are the companies that desperately need the next generation of innovators. I now have this army of kids that are suddenly passionate about technology and focused on figuring out how to be the next great innovators, but they need to be connected with the right people and companies. I think the win/win is going to be that we've created the passion, and you guys have the career paths. If we connect them, the world is going to be a better place.
Matties: Absolutely. What's the age group that you’re targeting?
Kamen: We started with high school. We said, "Look, we can't ask professional engineers to go out and mentor other dads' kids that are ten and seven. We've got to start with the high school." By starting with high school, it has become a huge success, and we all really know that those kids are adults. They work with all these companies, and they get to see what the world of tech is like. What happened over the first few years is that all the younger brothers and sisters of these high school kids wanted to come to the championship. It's just like if you have a baseball team—you’ve got to have a Little League team. If you have a little league, you've got to have tee-ball for the little kids. You’ve got to hold the ball still. They learn how to hit the ball before they learn how to walk.
We went from FIRST robotics and then after a few years we needed to go down to FIRST Tech Challenge, which is in the middle school with younger kids. Then we went, not to Little League, but to FIRST LEGO League, where they use the LEGO pieces. Then their younger brothers and sisters want in, so now we even have Junior FIRST LEGO League for the five-, six- and seven-year-olds. We have had over 46,000 schools in 86 countries compete this season. We have well over a million kids on these teams. We have 3,600 corporate sponsors, and pretty much every major tech company in the world is sponsoring FIRST teams. It's phenomenal.
Matties: This is great. You're really good for the industry, and what you are doing is good for the world. How many years have you been doing this?
Kamen: We're in our twenty-fifth year. In the first year I had 23 teams. In the second year, about 40-some odd teams then, and in the third year, 100 teams. In the fourth year, 200 teams. We've had something like 55% compound annual growth for 25 years, and every year it's the same. In January, we give them a new kit of parts full of electronic stuff, and we give them a new definition of the problem. This year it's called “Stronghold,” and it's sort of like capture the flag on a field about the size of a basketball court. This past January, with all the new teams, we handed out kits to over 46,000 schools, and we had kickoff events in countries around the world. We have teams coming to the championship from 86 countries. In the U.S. alone, we have regional events every weekend starting at the beginning of March going right through the first week in April. We have 116 cities total. Cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Jose, Cleveland, Seattle, Houston, Orlando, Atlanta and so on. Pretty much every major city in the country. Put it this way, I think something like 90% of the population of kids in the United States is now within a two-hour ride of being at one of these events.
Matties: That's fantastic. What are some of the success stories? You've been doing this for many years...
Kamen: I think if you just ask any of the big companies here they'll tell you FIRST has become their most effective source of talent. It used to be you could wait for kids to graduate college, do a 20-minute interview, and try to pick the winners for your company. Today, there's a huge shortage of really good technical people, and kids are now so mobile they'll go anywhere. These big companies need the kids more than the kids need them, and waiting until they're out of college to try to figure out how to get a relationship started is ridiculous. It would be like saying to kids at the age of 20, "Hey, you know what? You should think about sports as a career. Have you ever tried to play baseball? Have you ever tried to play football?" If you're not involved as a kid, you'll never be great. If you're a college that has never done scouting, you're toast.
Our model is very, very similar to the real model of sports. We have a place called Scholarship Row at the championship in St. Louis, and it's the whole first floor of the convention center leading into the 76,000-seat arena. We had 182 universities lined up for this. You know, little ones like, oh, Stanford and MIT, Cal Tech, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Last year, they gave out about $30 million in scholarships to these FIRST kids, but they are scouting like in sports. They are scouting our kids at that high school event in the same way the football coach is scouting. The companies have now realized, "I've got to give summer internships to these kids. I want these kids to stay local." Pick a place like Des Moines, for example. If the kids in Des Moines don't go off to college, they probably aren't going to be capable of being a great resource in your company. If they go off to college and get a degree in engineering, maybe they want to go to Silicon Valley? Maybe they want to go to San Diego? Maybe they want to go to Research Triangle Park? They may not want to come back home, so all of a sudden these companies realize that among the young people in their community there's two kinds: The ones that probably can't add value for them and stay there, and the ones that could be great, and they leave.
These companies support FIRST because they get involved with them while they're in the community, they help them get through college, and they give them summer internships. The kids know the companies, the companies know the kids, and that's how they grow. When you look at what it costs a company to hire an engineer it’s phenomenal. We have whole HR and recruiting departments. We fly them in, interview them, and 50% of the time we make the wrong choice anyway. We figure that out in the first year. Then we spend money to move them.
It costs so much money to get one person, and you need multiple people. You say to the companies, "You know, adopt your local high school and you have access to a thousand potential kids. Half of whom you're going to turn into people that will be great contributors because you've turned them on, you've given them passion, you've shown them a way, and you've helped them get there. Who do you think they want to work for? The mentors that they've been working with the last five years."
Matties: Exactly. How does a company get involved?
Kamen: They send me an email or they go to the FIRST website, firstinspires.org. Just enter the word FIRST, in lower or uppercase, into Google, who happens to be a major sponsor. They sponsor a whole regional event for us. I mean, if you type "purple dinosaur" in Google, you'd probably find 10,000 hits, right? You type the word "first" and you get, I don't know, a few hundred thousand hits, but the very first thing you see when you hit "first" is us. Thank you, Google.
It's easy to get involved in FIRST for every kind of company. The kids don't all have to want to be engineers. They need to learn how to organize. They form teams that are essentially little companies in their school and they may have a marketing department. FIRST transforms the lives of the kids. After we've been in the school for three or four years, you'll typically go into that school and more of their trophy case and more of the banners hanging in that school are related to FIRST than football and basketball combined.
Matties: In America in particular, we know there are some cities and inner cities that are very poverty stricken.
Kamen: The highest density of FIRST teams in any school system in the United States is Michigan. Within Michigan, the highest density is Detroit and their surroundings because the giant companies there realized that if they didn't turn the next generation around, their city would rot from the inside out. They committed to FIRST and right from the very top, General Motors, Ford, all the big guys and all of their suppliers have become major FIRST sponsors. To the point that the governor of Michigan and the mayor of Detroit came to their championship event and announced that their goal is to put FIRST in every school in the city of Detroit and then in every school in the state of Michigan.
Matties: The supplies that a city needs or a school needs, is that done through the sponsors? For the kids it's all zero cost?
Kamen: Zero cost to the kids and then typically a company sponsors the school and then their engineers work with the kids. It's like, how do you do Little League in a town? Any way you want. This dad is the coach. This guy found the field. We have 125,000 signed-up volunteer mentors for the kids.
Matties: I was thinking the community support must be incredible for this.
Kamen: We have 125,000 engineers that donate their time that we know of, plus the community, the teachers, the schools, the parents, and it's just a love fest of technology. Everybody loves it.
Matties: When you started your career, this wasn't around. What inspired you and motivated you to get into this?
Kamen: As a kid, I was not a very good student. I liked to think about doing things that had never been done. I didn't like to read in the book what somebody else had done 40 years ago or 100 years ago or 200 years ago. School to me seemed like a way of confining your thinking. We're going to teach you what they did that worked. We're going to show you, maybe by example, what didn't work, which is important to know. It's nice to “stand on the shoulders of giants,” as Isaac Newton said, but at some point you have to stop looking back and doing the problems that have the answers only in the back of the book and you have to start figuring out how to start solving the problems that aren't in the book. Never mind the answer, the question isn't in the book.
I find it much more exciting to think about solving the unsolved or even the unasked questions. It was always more exciting to me than reciting what was in that textbook. I wasn't a good student, but I loved technology. I loved learning science. I loved learning to understand the elegant, simple, but subtle laws of nature, and then figuring out how to apply those laws of nature to the rules in the world of engineering to create solutions to problems. Whether it's an insulin pump for people with diabetes or a balancing iBOT to help people that can't walk to stand up and go up and down stairs, I like applying technology in new ways to dramatically improve people that have old problems. If you can bring new technologies to old problems in a creative way, you can change the world.
Matties: What sort of projects are you working on now?
Kamen: We're working on distributed energy for the world. Two billion people have no reliable access to electricity, even enough to stay on the Internet or have a little bit of LED lighting at night to be safe and productive. We're working on distributed water systems, because the number one source of chronic human disease on this planet is the lack of clean water, and we're building a vapor compression distiller that can be plopped down anywhere to turn any source of water into pure water. Our core business is still medical products. High-end, high-tech medical products like dialysis machines. We make peritoneal dialysis machines for home use and we just got a new approval in Europe for a home hemodialysis machine, which is going to transform the lives of people with end stage renal failure. We're working on all sorts of new technologies to, we hope, improve quality of life in people with chronic medical conditions.
Matties: It sounds like your mission in life is to make other lives better.
Kamen: It's a win/win. It's a win because we love solving a technical challenge and delivering a useful solution, not a science fair report, to people who are impacted. It's a win for them because they get a better quality of life. It's a win for us because you can do something you love to do and get paid to do it. It's like having a hobby that helps you and gives you a career so you don't need to get a job. It helps the people that you just built the equipment for.
Matties: Great. Is there anything we haven't talked about that you'd like to share?
Kamen: That this whole community ought to very quickly go to the FIRST website and see how to get involved in FIRST. The championship [April 27−30] will be a love fest of technology of the scale of the Superbowl at the Edward Jones Arena in St. Louis. In between, there'll be a hundred events here and around the world that the people of this industry should attend. They should bring their kids and their grandkids. It's the most fun they'll ever have and it's the most impactful thing on the lives of all these kids.
Matties: Dean, we certainly appreciate you spending so much time with us today. We greatly appreciate it.
Kamen: You're very welcome.