On a recent afternoon during a Zoom interview, Dean Kamen sat in an old mill overlooking the Merrimack River in New Hampshire. He bought the mill from Warren Buffett years ago and restored it to house DEKA Research & Development Corporation, which he founded in 1982. Behind him, and in view, was a small painting by his father. It was of Einstein, complete with white, wild hair, riding a Segway. The invention may be what made Kamen famous, but he is also credited with developing the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics, a wheelchair that climbs stairs, a home dialysis system, as well as Slingshot, a machine that purifies water for places lacking clean drinking water. Ask him about his largest achievement and he says time will tell.
His contributions to science and technology do not stop there. One of his proudest accomplishments is the FIRST® robotics competition, which has become a worldwide success that has inspired generations of young learners.
On May 26, he will speak at Stevens’ 150th graduate commencement. He took some time to catch up with us before he arrives.
You hold more than 1,000 U.S. and foreign patents, many of them for innovative medical devices that have expanded the frontiers of healthcare worldwide. Many Stevens students also apply for provisional patents as they evaluate their invention’s potential. What are your thoughts on applying for patents so early in one’s career?
Having good patents is a really good idea and being young should in no way disqualify you from that endeavor. In fact, big companies that have lots of resources, marketing, sales and clout in the marketplace probably don’t need patents as much as the little guy. The little guy can hold up that patent and say you can’t do this without me, so I think patents are significantly more valuable as part of your leverage if you’re part of a small or start-up company than the big guys. Having said that, I think many young people confuse having patents with being successful in some way. A patent, at best, represents a license to sue somebody. That’s what it is. It’s proof that the U.S. government said you met a couple of standards that were disclosed and that were not obvious — they’ve not been done before — and that you can produce what that patent claims.
The Founding Fathers had a lot of wisdom. If people invest their time, money and reputation to try to do something nobody has done before, they had the right to enjoy the benefit of their hard work. They knew that if someone solved a problem and their intellectual property wasn’t protected – that is, if everyone copied and used it — these inventors would solve these problems secretly, which would prevent new ideas from proliferating. So, the Founding Fathers decided to tell people, ‘If you show us exactly how to solve a real problem, we’ll protect you for a period of time, and we will not let anyone else do it.’ That way, we encourage people to invent and to share and disclose what they do. That’s why the Founding Fathers wrote legislation that was aimed at protecting the rights of inventors. They thought that it may even be the ticket to America gaining economic dependence.
The only way we’re going to get people to invest in creating new solutions is to assure them that when we are all done, they will have protection. At my company DEKA, we have well over 6,000 patents right now, and we do it so that we can ask the Fortune 500 giants that we work with all the time to help bring our intellectual property into reality. As the little guy, I can’t go toe-to-toe with them and invest the money to do it myself. I have to slide something across the table that assures them, if this works and you invest in it, this license will protect you from anybody else.
While still a college undergraduate, you invented the first wearable infusion pump, which rapidly gained acceptance from such diverse medical specialties as oncology, neonatology and endocrinology. Since then, you have developed numerous devices that have reimagined how patients manage their healthcare. What has been your overarching principle that has helped you assess unmet clinical needs and develop solutions for them?
Very simple. It has to be something that will meaningfully improve life for people; is there a really big medical need? The second thing we ask ourselves is whether anyone else is likely to come up with a solution soon. If they are, I don’t need to compete and if the problem is going to be solved, then I’m wasting my time. Third, which is always the tough one, is do I have any reason to believe — if it’s such a big problem and no one else is doing it — what makes me think we can succeed? I typically end up thinking that I don’t know if we can succeed, but we better try. With the skillsets we have in electrical, mechanical, systems and controls engineering, we’re pretty good at that stuff, so let’s not make the same wheelchair people have been making for 100 years and just add a cup holder. Let’s make one that stands up and climbs stairs and puts people at eye level. That’s a big deal, that’s not a marginal improvement on a wheelchair. That’s going to be really hard to do, a class three medical device. But if we can do it, we’ll give people independence, we’ll give people dignity, we’ll give people access.
There’s acknowledgement that there is a risk associated with all products, drugs and devices. How do you define acceptable risk as you navigate this space, and how do you deal with uncertainty in other areas of your life?
The real way I deal with risk is to recognize that I’ll probably fail, a lot. Math books, for example, are full of problems we already know how to solve. You can’t find a textbook that has a bunch of interesting problems where the answers aren’t in the back of the book. The only interesting problems are the ones that aren’t solved yet, and in trying to solve them, you’ll fail a lot. I would rather at the end of the day crash and burn learning that was not a good idea. I would rather have a spectacular failure and few successes every once in a while. I’d prefer either one of those than the warm death of mediocrity. So, the short answer, I can’t avoid failure.
In recent years, we’ve seen cross-over collaboration and partnerships between the medical technology and high-tech industries. How do we steer and prepare the next generation to leverage these emerging technologies that will help define the next frontier of medicine?
If we can turn math, science, engineering and inventing into something as exciting and accessible as bouncing a ball, we’re going to get millions of kids — particularly women and minorities — to at least come take a look at science. When we do that, you know what happens? They get hooked. They get hooked on robotics and they go to school like Stevens. I think if you can point the masses in the right direction, if you can give them the opportunity to do the right thing, you’ll get some of them to do it and that’s what I try to do.
And what is the right thing? People argue about how to teach kids to find the optimal solutions for difficult problems. Many times, people teach kids that the optimum solution is the one that’s the lowest risk or gives them the best short-term return. In my mind, those two things shouldn’t even factor into what you do. You get up in the morning and you know what you do? You don’t look for the least risk. You don’t look for the short-term thing. You know what you do? You get up in the morning and you do the right thing. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes you fail. But if you choose to do the easy thing — and choose to ignore the right thing — you will pay the price.
My absolute biggest need right now is smart young students that really have a work ethic and passion to work on difficult problems, the ones that can deal with failure, the ones that can live in the tough environment that I’m in. We take on very difficult projects at DEKA. We know that these projects are going to take a long time. We also know that failure in these products is unacceptable because when people use them, they can get hurt or killed if our stuff doesn’t work.
After many inventions and awards, including the Lemelson-MIT prize in 2002, you also founded FIRST®, an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use and enjoy science and technology. Why is it important for you to give back to the community and impart what you have learned throughout your career to create an appreciation for science and technology?
When I was a little kid, we grew up in Long Island and my parents would bring myself and my older brother to my grandparents’ place in Brooklyn on a Friday night, and we would stay over. My grandfather, who came across on the boat from Ellis Island as a kid like everyone else’s grandparents in my generation, started out picking rags in Brooklyn. He worked himself up to where he had a nice life and a nice career, he certainly wasn’t a rich guy. One Saturday morning, we were sitting, and he was opening mail and writing checks. I asked him who he was writing checks to, and he said, “People who need help.” I asked why, and he replied, “I remember when I needed a lot of help and some people helped me, but most didn’t. Now I’m in a place where I can be helpful.” So, I asked him, “How do you know how much money to give?” He put his pen down and said, “You give until it hurts. If you’re not giving until it hurts, you’re not giving enough.” Then he looked right at me and made me promise that when I grow up, I would give until it hurt.
If everybody wants to take a little more out of the world than they put in, sooner than later, with more and more people taking more and more out of the world, the world will have nothing left. But, if everybody puts in a little more than they take out every day, with billions of people, every day, the world will get bigger and richer, so everybody has to put back a little more than they take out. I remember to this day saying to my grandfather I will do that. I started FIRST Robotics, my science center. I started making products that may not make a profit, but these products are giving back a better quality of life or access. I got to that place in life where I realized the small print of what I promised my grandfather. That I would take out a lot and I would give back a lot.