Where Einstein Meets Edison

A Nerd for the Ages: Dean Kamen Lights Up MIT’s Better World Conference

A Nerd for the Ages: Dean Kamen Lights Up MIT’s Better World Conference

Jul 6, 2010

The MIT Enterprise Forum hosted the Better World 2010 conference at the Media Lab on April 30th. The conference’s vision, as laid out by executive producers Peter Zak and Patrick Robinson, was to showcase the power of entrepreneurship and innovation to address the world’s great challenges. The spirited gathering brought together some leading players across diverse but related sectors, from researchers and policy planners to journalists, venture capitalists and beyond, to review three major themes of entrepreneurship in the 21st century: the business of innovation, life sciences and the future of sustainable energy.  The keynote address was delivered by prolific inventor and technology advocate Dean Kamen. Mr. Kamen is perhaps best known in the public consciousness for his invention of the Segway scooter, a novel transportation device that seeks to remake the way urban dwellers get around on city streets. Kamen has had an illustrious career and continues to serve as the CEO of his design and engineering company, Deka Research, based in Manchester, NH (a 40-minute drive from Boston).

Kamen began his talk by noting tongue-in-cheek that he never once had a “job” his entire life. His career has been wholly based on the lifelong pursuit of, and passion for, technological invention. He recounted his early days as an undergraduate at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in central Massachusetts, where the campus was merely a place “full of consultants and advisors.” Here, he gave the impression that he had a very clear idea from a young age of where he wanted to go in life and spent his youth focused on acquiring the necessary tools to help him get there. Next, he shifted towards technology. He spoke on the emotional, cultural and regulatory impediments hindering the adoption of new technology by reminding would-be inventors that it takes less time to develop new technologies than for the same technologies to be accepted by society at large.

Kamen and his company, Deka Research, specialize in borrowing ideas from one technical field and applying them to another. For example, Kamen recounted a project that involved designing a high-strength aortic stent that also required considerable durability. This problem had stumped several biomedical engineers who were not accustomed to materials with such properties. Kamen’s key insight was to adapt technology found in hinge pins of helicopter rotors (the  “screw” that keep the spinning rotor fixed in place is made to withstand extreme conditions) to medical devices, which are also subjected to harsh environments. Kamen and his team neither built nor engineered the materials from scratch, rather, they acquired these durable materials and used them to design and successfully manufacture the stents; they cleverly sought solutions where others lacked the expertise or curiosity.

Kamen’s has made a habit of thinking big and tackling difficult problems. His guiding philosophy and advice for would-be entrepreneurs is that whenever you find yourself explaining to someone else what you are doing and they don’t respond with “you’re nuts”, then you are likely making only incremental changes. In other words, Kamen argued, always strive for the most challenging problems with the greatest potential impact. Kamen spent the bulk of the first half of his presentation focusing on the two projects that have recently occupied the majority of his time. The first consisted of a portable water treatment device that can purify any type of water without membranes or filters. The technology only requires electricity, and he boasts that it is 50% more efficient in removing particulates from water than current distillation methods. Kamen argued that this device could be useful in rural areas in the developing world where large-scale centralized water treatment facilities are simply beyond the means of dysfunctional national governments, empowering local citizens to seek their own decentralized, distributed solutions. The second was a robotic arm that could be used as a prosthetic limb. It was engineered to demonstrate exquisitely fine motor control and dexterity, providing 14 active degrees of freedom and weighing only 8.7 lbs. Mr. Kamen showed a video of this meticulously engineered robotic arm in use by real patients as they delicately fed themselves grapes handled with care without any crushing and lifting a spoonful of food from a bowl of cereal into their mouths without spilling. The DARPA-commissioned project is already helping to ameliorate the lives of ordinary citizens with serious lifestyle disabilities.

During the second part of the address, Kamen focused on his personal efforts to stimulate interest in science and technology among the younger generation. His core message revolved around the simple reformulation of a common economic mantra to elucidate his strategy: “demand and supply.” Kamen made the point that education reform advocates and policy planners spend too much attention and resources on the supply end through programs such as Teach for America and increased funding for educator training. These initiatives had implicitly assumed that students’ dismal performance on basic math and science aptitude tests were primarily the result of unqualified, uninspiring and disinterested school teachers. What had been overlooked was the vital role of culture beyond the classroom environment. As Kamen emphatically declared: “This is not an education problem, but a passion problem.” A culture that respects and dignifies learning is essential for nurturing a lifelong passion to excel in science and technology. Kamen lamented our current cultural zealotry of sports and entertainment in which superstar athletes and pop artists earn astronomical salaries. Legions of today’s adolescents venerate these performers as idols and spend their early years singularly fixated on pursuing such professions. Unfortunately, Kamen remarked, most of these youngsters are oblivious to the improbable odds of attaining success in these areas and, more importantly, are contributing to an enormous amount of unrealized human potential, something that is detrimental to the national interests of this great country. Kamen put forth a reasoned argument that careers in science and technology are far more practical for an ordinary citizen than a career as an athlete in the National Basketball Association (NBA). To make it to the upper echelons of professional sports, as the award-winning documentary “Hoop Dreams” so succinctly illustrated, these naive youngsters encounter ferocious competition for the handful of positions available each year in the entry draft. Here, Kamen evoked a powerful analogy between sports and academia. In sports, Kamen argued, everything is about nurturing and teamwork: coaches routinely motivate their athletes and provide guidance and mentorship through difficult times. This is in contrast with the unforgiving classroom environment where failure is shunned, teamwork is labeled as “cheating” and the overall experience is usually un-nurturing and unwelcoming. In Kamen’s view, youngsters really need to experience the beauty of science through teamwork and collaboration to truly grasp its appeal. As a response, Kamen initiated the US FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition in 1989, which has grown immensely in popularity. This year’s contest saw 1808 high school teams from 12 countries compete for the grand prize at the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Fittingly, Kamen used a quote from Walt Havenstein, former President and CEO of BAE Systems Inc.: “This [science and technology] is the only sport where everyone can turn pro.”

Kamen is an incredible individual. His seminal contributions in technological innovation and science advocacy put him in a class of his own. He stands out as an ideal example of the enterprising nerd who has made a lasting impact on many different areas of society. He embodies the soul of MIT and its mission statement: “..the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humanity.” In this sense and so many others, the organizers of this year’s Better World conference could not have picked a more appropriate person as their keynote speaker.