Dean Kamen
Co-founder, FIRST; President, DEKA Research and Development

How Did Micro Medical Technology Get So Small?

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Dean Kamen shares how he adapted one of his inventions, a tiny drug delivery system for neonatal cancer patients, for adults with other conditions.

Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen is an American scientist and inventor whose products include the Segway human transporter (HT) and the iBOT battery-powered wheelchair. His inventions include medical devices and futuristic gizmos that Kamen hopes will revolutionize the way we live and travel.

In 1989, Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a robotics competition for high school students. In 2007, it held 37 competitions in countries such as Israel, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

Kamen is the President of DEKA Research and Development.

Kamen was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1997 for his biomedical devices and for making engineering more popular among high school students. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2000 by then President Clinton for inventions that have advanced medical care worldwide. In 2002, Kamen was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize for inventors, for his invention of the Segway and of an infusion pump for diabetics. In 2005 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the AutoSyringe. In 2006 Kamen was awarded the Global Humanitarian Action Award by the United Nations.


Question: What was your first medical invention?


Dean Kamen: When I was still in my parents’ basement, busily making money doing our audio visual stuff, I had an older brother at the time who was off in medical school and he’s an extremely bright guy, doing both an MD and a PhD program, and his PhD work was in developing therapies for pediatrics, in fact neonatal cancer patients, babies with leukemia. And he was developing the drug therapy for this neonatal but they are so small. They weigh a couple of pounds. There was no practical equipment out there for him to deliver his therapy.

So, he dropped in the basement on a trip home from med school and whinning and complaining about his lack of equipment designed for babies. It wasn’t surprising to me that there is not a lot of equipment for babies because fortunately, they are not a very large piece of the medical population. Fortunately, old people get sick; babies don’t normally have that problem. But I get sit on the basement and imagine that I could build tiny, tiny, little drug delivery systems essentially using a syringe, for instance, as a whole base of drugs instead of an IV bottle.

So, I built for my brother some little devices that used the syringe as the reservoir and built some electronics in control systems that would allow him to program those things for drug delivery, for his research.

I think he was very proud of my stuff. I certainly wasn’t doing that as business. I was helping my brother. But he would take it to med school with him, and he ended up doing a little time at Harvard, where there are a lot of doctors up in Boston. And he ended up doing a residency in Yale where he met a lot of the adult docs. And one of these docs, at one point said, that little thing is so small it’s great that it sits in a nice set moving around with babies. But it’s so small, you could slap it on a belt or put it on a pocket of an adult who can work around getting chronic therapy for things that might dramatically improve their outcome. Like what? How about insulin for diabetics?

So, suddenly I took this core technology that I develop for this very rare disease--lots of people will never have to deal with pediatric cancer--and it would serve a very, very broad population of people walking around needing high insulin to deal with diabetes.

So we modified the pumps, we moved out of the basement. We started making lots of different pharmaceutical delivery systems. And we ended up building a nice company around that and until this day, we continue to build stuff for home dialysis, diabetes cares. He build lots of products related to helping people get both better therapy and live better lives simultaneously.


Conducted on: June 9, 2009.