Interview with Dean Kamen, Segway Inventor and Founder of FIRST


Reading time ( words)

Dean_Kamen2.jpgKamen: 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.

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