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SPIE Professional April 2011: Open access article

Creativity FIRST for technology innovator Dean Kamen

An American entrepreneur advocates for the next generation of science and technology innovators.

By Dean Kamen

For many years, I didn't think that I had much in common with my father career-wise. He was a commercial artist for comic books, magazines, and the like. Art is something for which I have no discernible talent; give me a ruler and I can barely draw a straight line.

It therefore came as a surprise, and a welcome one, when someone pointed out that the bridge between art, entrepreneurship, and inventing certainly does exist: Creativity.

The motto of my company, DEKA Research & Development Corp., is "Evolved Thinking." My talented team of engineers in New Hampshire dedicate themselves to finding new solutions to old problems. Innovation and invention can only be successful when creativity informs decisions.

Creative ideas may be tricky to engineer, and even trickier to accept, but they are the only type that can solve the difficult technological problems of the future.


Dean Kamen with a DEKA prosthetic arm in 2009. (Photo by Connor Gleason)
Beginning with light

My first foray into entrepreneurship was in the field of photonics. During the mid-1960s, the Hayden Planetarium, a staple of the New York museum scene and a short distance from my childhood home on Long Island, was looking to revamp its light show. The device I presented them -- an electronic box far smaller and simpler than the obsolete equipment they had been using -- raised a few eyebrows. However, they apparently felt I came for the right price (which, not by coincidence, was just enough to buy my first car).

My focus on medical technologies came as a result of another family member, my older brother Bart, a brilliant physician and pharmacologist. While studying juvenile oncology in medical school, Bart wanted a device that could administer minute doses of medication to an infant over an extended period of time. To help, I did what any high schooler with a bright idea would do; I went to my parents' basement and got to work.

My prototype eventually evolved into the first portable infusion pump, with applications for a variety of conditions, including diabetes. In 1976, at the age of 25, I founded AutoSyringe to manufacture and market the pumps.

Creativity without restraint

Within five years, the company confronted a particularly difficult entrepreneurial decision: to sell, or not to sell?

The great benefit of being a technologist and an entrepreneur is the freedom that comes with determining your own goals and priorities. The decision to sell AutoSyringe to Baxter International not only gave me the freedom to form DEKA, but also to focus exclusively on those aspects of the inventing process that truly interest me and my engineers: front-end research and development.

DEKA's ability to chart its own course has allowed us to focus on the development of new technologies for a variety of corporate clients. Our inventions include the HomeChoice peritoneal dialysis system, the Hydroflex surgical irrigation pump, an improved design for the stent, the iBOT mobility device, and the Segway Human Transporter.

Creative freedom unburdened by external restraints has also allowed DEKA to develop internal projects directed at solving some of the world's most pressing problems.

We are currently working on the next generation of Stirling cycle engines — portable, point-of-use generators that produce clean electricity from any liquid or gaseous fuel. (A trial unit that was set up in Bangladesh powered a village's lighting and computers using only the methane released by a pit of cow dung.) Our Slingshot water purification system can produce 1000 liters of water per day using the same amount of electricity as a handheld hair dryer.

Given that billions of people are currently deprived of the basic necessities of water and power, these technologies have the potential to fundamentally change the human condition. And it is because of entrepreneurial freedom that DEKA has had the ability to develop them.

Something worth doing

Most of the time, however, outside clients come to DEKA and propose a research project to our engineers. This was the case for one of our most recent, exciting, and challenging projects: a prosthetic arm for U.S. military veterans.

Several years ago, a group of passionate and committed representatives from DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) came to my office in Manchester, NH.

Dean Kamen, students and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas
The Black Eyed Peas singer will.i.am (in suit) joined Dean Kamen (in blue) at Southern New Hampshire University (USA) in January to launch the 20th season of the FIRST® Robotics Competition. The international robot-building contest challenges high-school students, working with professional mentors, to experience the excitement of science, math, engineering, technology, and innovation. The championship event will be held in St. Louis, Missouri, 27-30 April. (Photo by Lipofsky.com)

Their order was as concise as it was daunting: design a prosthetic arm that has the ability to pick up a grape (without breaking it) or a raisin (without dropping it). It also needed to offer multiple degrees of freedom and mimic the size and weight of a human arm.

I was candid; I told the DARPA folks they were nuts.

My reaction should have been the first clue that it was a project worth taking on. Most great inventions were thought to be crazy at some point. The next day, I agreed that DEKA would take on the challenge.

A year later, our engineers had produced a prototype that performed the tasks laid out by DARPA. This story highlights what I think is the most important rule of inventing and entrepreneurship: when you take a bunch of people with intelligence, drive, and just a hint of madness, there is nothing that they cannot do.

Career in invention

As proud as I am of the many beneficial technologies that DEKA has produced, the project that gives me the most joy and rewards is FIRST®, a nonprofit I founded 20 years ago to get kids interested in science and technology.

The future belongs to the innovators, and at this moment, the next generation of Americans is not prepared to lead the way. The United States currently ranks 17th in science and 24th in math out of 65 developed countries. As Europe and East Asia continue their forward progress toward technological superiority, the United States is more and more at risk of losing our place as one of the world's leading economies.

Now more than ever, young people need to educate themselves in the fields of science, engineering, and technology and, more importantly, find the enthusiasm that will lead to careers in invention and innovation.

FIRST Robotics Competition
An entry in the FIRST Robotics Competition. (Photo by Adriana M. Groisman)

Using robotics competitions at various age levels as the catalyst, FIRST teaches kids not only science and technology skills, but also cooperation, teamwork, corporate relations, and communications.

FIRST is not a class, nor would it ever attempt to focus on education. America is not suffering from a lack of qualified science and math teachers, but from a crisis of demand. Kids need to be inspired, not lectured at.

Just as sports and entertainment have given young people no shortage of idols and role models, FIRST uses mentors and engineering professionals to show students the endless possibilities that exist when they exercise the most powerful "muscle" of all -- the one between their ears.

All engineers and technology careerists must take up the mantle of inspiring the next generation of scientific leaders. The future of this country entirely depends on it.

Future of creativity

A wise man once opined that the harder he worked, the luckier he seemed to be. What was true then is equally true today, especially in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The true agent of change in this world has always been the will and creativity of smart people.

The world will face many difficult technological challenges in the future. We must do what we can to ensure that future generations are prepared to take on the challenges.

Update on FIRST

Dean KamenSegway inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen holds more than 440 patents. Many of his inventions, such as the first insulin pump for diabetics and a lightweight robotic arm, have expanded the frontiers of health care across the globe. Kamen was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005 and received the National Medal of Technology in 2000. He attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and is an avid advocate for science and technology education.

OPEN ACCESS: This article is open-access to the general community. To read the full text of other feature articles inside SPIE Professional, please use your SPIE member login.


FIRST® in Science and Technology

FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1989 by technology entrepreneur and prolific inventor Dean Kamen.

Led by Kamen's vision, it designs accessible and innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math while also building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.

FIRST programs include an annual robotics competition and real-world research for kids age 6 to 18. Included are activities for the younger children, age 6 to 9, that introduce real-world engineering challenges and Gracious Professionalism™, the idea that fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions.

As Kamen says: "You have teenagers thinking they're going to make millions as NBA stars when that's not realistic for even 1% of them. Becoming a scientist or engineer is."

The organization will also provide $14 million in college scholarships from more than 140 scholarship providers this year.


SPIE Leadership Series

Looking for inspiration or advice about becoming a successful optics and photonics professional?

The SPIE Student Services and SPIE Professional Leadership Series can help SPIE Members transition from student to early career professional and beyond. Leadership Series articles from SPIE Professional magazine focus on practical workplace advice to help you become a more effective professional.

Find the Leadership Series online at spie.org/leaderseries.


Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201104.09

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