You might know Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research & Development, as “the Segway guy.” But he would much rather you know him as the guy who invented the first insulin pump, a robotic arm for humans, the iBOT stair climbing wheelchair, or a revolutionary machine which can provide safe drinking water to developing countries.
Dean of Business Steve Reinemund welcomed Kamen, a man he called “the real Dean,” to the Wake Forest University Schools of Business on Nov. 17. “Personal Passion Changes the World” was part of the Leading Out Loud Broyhill Executive Lecture Series. The audience included students, faculty, guests and even children who have participated in Kamen’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competitions.
It is quite clear that Dean Kamen is a passionate man, full of energy and strong opinions. He is brilliant, yet approachable. Dressed in his signature blue jeans and denim shirt, Kamen is authentic --describing himself as “genetically incapable of not being sarcastic.” He will proudly point out that he didn’t wear a coat and tie to meet the President of the United States and “the Secret Service doesn’t have a sense of humor when it comes to chasing the President around with a robot.”
The stories behind Kamen’s inventions are inspiring. He challenged Wake Forest business students to commit to ventures that will change lives, versus immediate financial returns. “If you have a big idea, go with it, be flexible, seize opportunities and make it happen,” Kamen said.
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The Insulin Pump
The insulin pump, now widely used by diabetics, was Kamen’s first big medical invention. He developed it in his parents’ basement. His brother was a medical student looking for a portable drug infusion system to electronically control medication doses for infants. Kamen came up with a solution in 1973. “We lost two decades,” he said. “It only took 20 years to become an instant, overnight success.” Developing technology isn’t the struggle, he said. “Getting people to accept change is the hard part.”
The Crown Stent
Countless cardiovascular patients have Kamen to thank for reducing the risks and recovery time from surgery. When Johnson & Johnson asked him to improve the design of the Palmaz-Schatz stent, Kamen looked to his team of aerospace engineers to create a stent that could get into smaller arteries and navigate around tight corners. “When I went to the FDA for approval, I wasn’t going to tell them a bunch of motor heads at my helicopter plant in Michigan came up with the design. Since my helicopters can deliver drugs, I said ‘this stent was developed by the alternative drug delivery group’. Seize the opportunity to put the right things together,” Kamen emphasized.
Kamen said he rejected the chance to make a peritoneal dialysis machine a little better, simpler and cheaper. Instead, he set out to make a device that would eliminate trips to a dialysis center. He was warned it would be a high risk, but came up with a machine that a patient can use at home while sleeping. “This is something that went from ‘another one of Dean’s crazy ideas’ to a standard of care,” Kamen said.
“Making an improvement on a wheelchair seemed like a stupid idea,” Kamen said. That’s why he developed the iBOT, an all-terrain mobility device that could allow disabled people to “stand up” and even climb stairs. At first, the FDA told Kamen it was too dangerous. It took years to get approved. To this day, the CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) will not reimburse patients for the purchase of an iBot, he said. “Business people have unbelievable control and authority in this country. Be careful, use it wisely.”
DARPA Prosthetic Arm
Medical advances have improved the survival rates for men and women injured in combat, but some survivors are coming back with missing arms and legs. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wanted to develop a robotic arm that would allow someone to have enough agility to pick up a raisin or grape. Kamen showed the audience a video of a man learning to use the arm. “He picks up the spoon, holds it completely level and starts eating cereal,” Kamen explained. “His wife is standing behind him watching and she says ‘Chuck hasn’t fed himself in 19 years. You’ve got a choice, Dean-- we keep the arms, or you keep Chuck!’” The latest generation of the prosthetic arm due out next year has twice as much power and speed and looks more human than robot-like.
Power and Water
Kamen gets very animated when discussing the potential of his self-powered machine that can purify any liquid into safe drinking water. “The box doesn’t care what’s wrong with the water,” he said. Millions of people, mostly children, die from waterborne illnesses each year. “We could have more impact on global health than the entire pharmaceutical industry combined,” he added. “Why isn’t that happening?” Kamen asked business students to support his vision. “The people with no water and no electricity have no money. You can’t build a 90-day success model. You have to believe that these are productivity tools.”
Wherever Kamen goes, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to share his passion for FIRST. He started the non-profit program to create a sport out of engineering. FIRST organizes robotics and LEGO competitions around the world, getting kids inspired and excited about careers in science and technology. The program has also provided more than $12 million in scholarships. Kamen quotes his friend, Walt Havenstein of Science Applications International, who told FIRST contestants, “This is the only sport where every kid on the team can turn pro.” He asked for support saying that whatever you put into it, you’ll get even more out of it and “it’s fun, it’s rewarding, and everyone wins.”
Even the Segway was a medical invention. Kamen calls it a “fun byproduct” or a “trivial side effect” of the iBOT. The Segway is an electric, human transporter which uses much of same stabilization technology as the iBOT; it just doesn’t have a seat. He shared the notorious photo of President George W. Bush on vacation, falling off of a Segway. “It’s a self-balancing machine,” said Kamen. “They work a lot better if you turn them on before jumping on to them.”
Many people have won as a result of Kamen’s relentless passion for solving problems and improving lives. Perhaps his passion has inspired someone in his audience at the Wake Forest University Schools of Business to create the next big thing that will change the world.