To Innovate, 'Make Sure the Experts Think You're Nuts,' Kamen Tells Engineers

November 19, 2011

November 19, 2011 — Often referred to as "the Segway guy," Dean Kamen has invented much more than a high-tech personal transportation device.

Segway is simply a "cool" consumer product that is, in essence, a stripped-down version of his iBOT, a personal mobility system that he designed to bring "dignity" and supreme mobility to people with disabilities, Kamen told a full house Friday at the University of Virginia in Rice Hall's Olsson Auditorium, part of the dedication of the new building by the School of Engineering and Applied Science. His talk was the first public use of the auditorium and was broadcast to the building's Davis Commons, and the first in a series of lectures planned to commemorate the 175th anniversary of engineering at U.Va.

Unlike a wheelchair, the iBOT can climb curbs and stairs, navigate assorted terrains, and bring users up to eye level with whomever they interact, "to be able to go where we go," Kamen said.

His other inventions include the first portable insulin infusion pump, the HomeChoice peritoneal dialysis system and several other medical and aerospace systems and devices, including a mechanical arm he devised principally for injured veterans who have lost one or both arms.

During a two-hour talk, titled "The Future Belongs to the Innovators," Kamen spoke – among many subjects involving innovation – about the rapid rate at which technology develops, and the slow pace at which products are approved for public use.

"Societies are becoming more bureaucratic and worry about unintended consequences," he said. He cited several of his own devices and others that took excruciatingly long to bring to market, such as his insulin pump, which took 20 years, and the home dialysis system, which was originally considered too risky for patients to use at home. He said ultimately it comes down to reasonable risk measured against reasonable rewards.

"Technology moves fast, and we need to find ways help people embrace it," he said.

Kamen told his audience of mostly engineering students and professors that one way to make innovation happen is to "make sure the experts in the field think you're nuts." He said new ideas should go from "indefensible to indispensible," and that innovative thinking will lead to many failures but also to new ways to solve society's most challenging problems, such as clean water and power shortages for two-thirds of the world's population.

As a boy, he said, he was inspired by the "David and Goliath" story, in which little David defeated the giant Goliath with technology – a slingshot. He encouraged the future engineers to think beyond their own fields. "Become interested in people from different fields, different backgrounds and see what you can do that's new. You have this little spot of time between eternities to do something amazing – don't waste it."

He also spoke with passion about FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization he founded in 1989 to spark excitement among young people about the possibilities of innovation. He calls FIRST an "inspiration" organization, not an education organization. It sponsors massive technology competitions each year for high school teams, with corporate sponsorship, to build robots and face off in regional and national games held in sports arenas.

Kamen's goal is to get students excited about careers in science and technology, so that, unlike in athletics, "everyone can go pro" if they are willing to work hard and use their brains. He said he wants to "make thinking a fun and attractive sport."

He added that his engineering company, DEKA Research and Development Company, is "always looking for smart people."

Kamen urged his audience to become  involved with FIRST by showing a video clip of a promotional video narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, who has played "God" in two movies.

"You gotta do what God tells you," he said.

— By Fariss Samarrai

Media Contact

Josie Pipkin

Director of Communications, School of Engineering and Applied Science