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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[…]

The co-founder of FIRST talks about creativity, inspiring kids to become geeks and the myth that the US has a healthcare crisis.

Dean Kamen: I’m Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST and the President of DEKA Research and Development.


Question: How have you helped turn scientists into heroes?

Dean Kamen: Well, about 18 years ago, we [Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers] started a not for profit called FIRST, which is an acronym, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The theory at the time, and even more so today, was that despite popular opinion to the contrary, most kids really are scientists. They really love to discover new things, check their theories out, poke at the world, see what happens.

But we have a society that does a couple of things that I think are constantly gnawing away at kid’s perspective on Science and Technology. Number 1, we have created in this media-driven culture of ours an obsession with two places from which we created all the role models - the world of sports and the world of entertainment. The NBA, the NFL and the Hollywood are all there are. All the role models seem to come from on television, billboards, newspapers, magazines, nonstop.

Second thing we do is we turn science and engineering from a curiosity-based activity to something that gets judged, something that gets measured. Kids are intimidated by the way science and technology is presented. It’s made, frankly, quite boring and it becomes part of a curriculum that chases particularly women and minorities away.

So 18 years ago, we decided that while other people interested in the problem of how we are going to get more kids in our pipeline, how are we going to stimulate the next generation of scientists and engineers and those other people whether they’re governments, teachers, not for profits foundations, all focus and to stay focus on things. On the supply side of the education crisis, they all want more teachers, more standards, more books, more tests, more you name it.

We said, let’s take the contrarian view that the reason so few kids are doing well in math and science, or even choosing to study it all in this country, is not in fact an educational crisis and it’s not about a limitation on supply. We took the contrarian position that science and technology simply aren’t presented as being fun and exciting. We took the position and it’s not a supply problem at all, it’s a demand problem or a lack of it among kids. And we took the position, it’s not an education problem, it’s a culture problem.

In the culture of America, in a free culture, you get what you celebrate. And in this culture, we have two obsessions, become a group that becomes a group that celebrates sports heroes and entertainment heroes. There’s no room left for kids to see even a little bit of the opportunities to really, really get excited about becoming an inventor, an engineer, or a scientist, a problem solver so we formed an organization, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Notice the name? It is not for profit. It doesn’t have the word education in it. We’re not an education foundation. We are for inspiring kids and having them recognize science and technology really are accessible, they really are fun, they really are rewarding and they really are the places where career opportunities abound.

Most kids today that will dribble a ball hour after hour dreaming of being the next Shaquille O’Neal, most of these kids have virtually have no chance of ever making a career in professional sports. But any kid that is willing to spend any reasonable number of hours a day, or even for a week studying math, studying physics, studying engineering, studying science can have literally an unbound set of opportunities for careers in science and technology. But, they don’t know it and our culture works on it preventing them from knowing either how much fun it is, how rewarding it is or how accessible it is going to be.

So FIRST is about changing kids’ perspective, particularly women and minorities, and frankly, changing the perspective of our society and their culture, about what’s important.


Question: What was your first invention as a child?

Dean Kamen: The first thing that I actually remember creating as an invention wasn’t a big seller. I was probably five or six years old. My mother, as most mothers, thought it was a good idea that everyday I get out of bed and make the bed.

Well, I am small even today, but certainly for a six year old, I was particularly small. I could barely see over the side of that bed and running to one corner and tagging on the covers and then running to the other corner and tugging on the cover and if I tugged too far, running back to the first. It takes a lot of time and effort to run around that bed.

And I quickly learn that, for instance, if my old brother helped me, it wasn’t twice as fast as two of us. It was virtually instant because we can each be at one end of the bed, tugging on the cover. It’s taut, you let it go, it’s done.

It was sort of like learning for the first time you can pull a noodle but you can’t push a noodle.

It occurred to me that without his help, I could still in effect be pulling simultaneously from both ends if I could just, for instance, put a little pulley at the other end of the bed frame, put a knot in the end of the cover of the bedspread with a rope around it, come back to the other end and if the pulleys are all right, I could get out of bed, stand in one place, pull on a couple of ropes and everything was taut, the bed was made.

So I have an automatic bed maker. It wasn’t a big seller.


Question: What is the fundamental problem with US healthcare?

Dean Kamen: I think there a lot of issues with the US healthcare system. One of the issues is that people think in many ways that we have a massive healthcare crisis, and if you really dissect what people think of as a crisis, I think it’s a misguided assertion. All you have to do is look at the quality of health even in your lifetime, as you were a kid, certainly go back 50 years, go back 100 years. When you look at how far we’ve come, how fast we’ve gotten here, what people take for granted in terms of healthcare today, it’s pretty hard to be disappointed by the achievements of the medical community.

I think, part of the reason that we all say that we have a healthcare crisis is because there was a time that the cost of healthcare really in fact wasn’t very much, but people forget neither was the quality, neither was the capability.

As the quality got better, still with very little capability a doctor could be very concerned and give you a very high quality statement like, “It looks to us like you have this disease or that disease or cancer and you’re going to die because there’s not much this high quality doctor can do about that.”

We now live in a world where virtually everybody expects there’s going to be some reasonable therapy for virtually any situation. Well, this explosion of capability, this explosion of alternatives, of course has a cost to it. We certainly all love the idea that we will get more and more of the upside and the value and the quality but we’d like to see the cost continue to go down and down as we come to expect it would in computer technology or communications technology. But for lots of reasons, they are all very different.

So again, one of the assertions that I think needs to be questioned about the whole discussion is that we have a healthcare crisis. Really, I think we have now a society which is spending more and more of its money on healthcare as a percent of GDP as a percent of a lot of things. I think that’s a measure of success. Where else would you like to spend money? Now that we created a society where we got a couple of percent of the whole country, 2% to do all the farming and make all the food. Now that we have a society that’s rich enough that we all have access to electricity and clean water and basic needs. What’s wrong with a society that can afford to spend more and more of its resources, giving people a better quality of life, curing diseases, advancing science, advancing medical technology?

But if our measure of whether we are in a healthcare crisis or not is the fact that it cost more, I think we’ll never get out of this problem because it’s not a problem.

I think we have to finally deal with the fact that healthcare is offering us greater and greater value and it will cost more and more money. That is a good thing, that opportunity is a good situation.

The fact that it cost money to get things we want is a reality. We are no longer in a world where you can afford to simply say well, everybody can get all the healthcare that’s available because it’s unrealistic.

And as we move forward, no matter what political side of any issue you are on, no matter what economic side of this problem you want to work at, I think we need, and I hope it’s true, to understand that the value created by the healthcare, achievements that are hopefully in the near term and going on for a long time would be greater and greater happening at an accelerating rate, we’re understanding genomics, proteomics. I think, we will see more and more unbelievable technology developed.

We should become at ease with the fact that it will continue to be of larger piece of our economy and I think that’s a good thing. And once we recognize something as valuable as healthcare isn’t free, and it won’t be free, once we recognize that, the jobs created around it when we pay the healthcare also stimulates the economy, creates clean technologies, technologies that in fact we are the leader in the world, that could create export opportunities.

What’s wrong with creating whole new industries in which you can create exciting jobs for scientists, engineers? What’s wrong with economy that is based more and more on our ability to focus on improving the quality of life and the healthcare, the length of life and the quality of health of all people everywhere?

If we want to focus on doing that, we should be happy that we are such a rich society, rich financially, rich intellectually, rich culturally that we can afford to put more and more of our resources into something like healthcare. If we continue to have the simple shallow debate about, we spend more money today than we did the past year on healthcare, well you know what, 50 years ago you didn’t spend any money on Google, on the Internet, you had no cell phone bill. We don’t sit here and say, we have a crisis in digital communication, we have a crisis in computing, we have a crisis in video games because we spend more today than we did 10 years ago.


Question: How important will personalized medicine become in the future?

Dean Kamen: In some cases the medical technology is now allowing people to diagnose long before there are any symptoms. What might happen if we don’t intercede, or even if it’s going to happen, and we can’t intercede yet, how we can prepare for it.

A world in which you can get a therapy designed to improve your personal quality of life, it doesn’t have to be a pill that was tested against a broad-based of statistical people that are presumed to be somewhat similar to you, in which 30% were cured, and 30% were uncured, and 40% had terrible side effects, and you’re supposed to swallow this pill hoping you’re on the right 30%.

I think in our lifetime, that level of acceptance of “well, we couldn’t do any better,” won’t be tolerated. We’re going to start to see individual therapies customized for individual patients, and it’s going to change the way people get healthcare.


Question: How is it when the creative process hits a dead end?

Dean Kamen: I wouldn’t know what it’s like to hit a dead end. Every project I’ve ever worked on ends up ahead of schedule and on the budget. We always get it right the first time and we shipped it. And it’s always perfect. But I can imagine that there are a lot of people that don’t have that situation.

Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth. Every project we’ve ever done without exception, we start out with some simple objective. It always seem simple and then you get into the ugly reality of trying to accomplished that simple objective and nature, it’s not cruel but it’s very subtle and inevitably, you’re surprised along the way as you try to make things happen and almost all the surprises are bad surprises. New problems keep cropping up. Things that seem that they should work, don’t. A simple elegant idea turns out to have a bunch of ugly facts are related to that elegant idea, and no matter how elegant the idea is, the facts win. So you rethink that idea, you try different strategies, you employ different technologies.

And as you said, in the end if it finally works. People think you start it with this idea, you went on a straight line and concluded with this product. In fact, they not only think that but the way media present it, it reinforces that because media has a finite amount of time to tell a story. Media has a finite attention span.

Nobody wants to hear literally the five years of frustration that you took taking the wrong paths. For one thing, no matter how fast you’d speak, if they ask you about this project that took you five years, if they really wanted the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it would take you five years to tell it. You don’t have to tell all the crazy places you got on a piece of spaghetti and you ran through every strand of spaghetti in that bowl until you got to the end. They don’t want to know all about that spaghetti. They want to know where you started and as quickly as they can, they want to know the result and how it can affect them.

So we all, as a matter of course, when I asked about how we do anything in our lives, we start with some big thought, we might tell a few of the funny incidental side-path, but then in a finite amount of time, an interview and a book, we get to the conclusion people want. At best, with a couple of references to a little sidepath here and there.

As a consequence of all of that, people begin to think that some inventor in fact really starts with a big idea, runs along the line, gets to the conclusion, ships it off and starts the next idea, when in fact, at least in my case, you jumped in the spaghetti bowl, you crawled over every strand in that bowl. Some of them will swear you, covered at least five times, and then if you finally ever emerged at the other end, where you want it to be, which does sometimes happen but it is rare. Instantly you forget about all that spaghetti in the bowl. You bask for a moment in the victory of getting where you want it to be. The story gets told as a little quip and you move on. And the great myth that it was a straight line is unintentionally, I think, supported by that.

The most consistent character I have ever seen of people that succeed is that they never give up. They work and they work and they work and they fail, not once in a while, but they fail way, way, way more often than most people fail because they are trying to do something that other people haven’t done yet. And when you try to do something that hasn’t been done, when you have been given the road map, because no road map exists yet, you’re obviously going to get more mistakes and take more wrong turns than anybody that likes to travel with a map.

So those people that go out and try to do a new and different thing fail away more often than the people that don’t. It doesn’t matter however because once they succeed they hand all of us the map, and then we enjoy the benefits of all their failures and they move on to try to solve the next problem.


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