Tech pioneer Dean Kamen, best known for the Segway people mover, thinks science education needs a jolt of electricity.
Author Kevin Gray Photography Dan Saelinger
On a still, sunny day early this spring, Kamen—the wonky and chatty inventor of the Segway—hops Bond-like from his Enstrom helicopter and strides across the roof of his 1840s textile factory headquarters in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire.
Forty-eight hours ago, he was in New Orleans, consulting with Army colonels about the functions of a $100,000 prosthetic arm he is creating for amputee veterans. Then it was a quick trip to Washington, D.C., lobbying federal regulators to fast-track clinical trials for his at-home dialysis machine. His own home, a hexagonal manse with a Humvee in the garage and a 25-ton steam engine that belonged to Henry Ford in the foyer, is a few miles away. But Kamen spends most of his time here, amid 5,000 square feet of workshop and dozens of engineers.
“This country is in trouble,” he tells me, sounding every bit the action hero as he bemoans the lack of interest in the type of hard science that built America. Kamen, 59, wears a denim-on-denim ensemble. His boots are well oiled and worn. An iPhone is holstered to his belt. In one corner of his workshop sits a gadget-strewn desk; in another, a lucite chair molded to give the impression that the user is perched on Albert Einstein’s lap. “You’ve got a few billion people around the world looking at what made us great, figuring out the skill sets and teaching their kids,” he says. “More and more, I worry that we’ve figured out that watching the Super Bowl is fun and that science isn’t. We can change that.”
Kamen is just warming up. More than bionic arms and dialysis, more than bringing clean water and energy to the developing world, more than helping people get around on a self-balancing two-wheeler, Kamen wants to talk about America’s inventors of tomorrow. Eighteen years ago, when he first became concerned that the nation’s youth weren’t engaged enough with science, Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corp., started one of the country’s largest technology competitions for high school kids. He called it FIRST—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Each April, its national robotics championship brings 10,000 high school and middle school students to the 72,000-seat Georgia Dome in Atlanta to take part in a unique problem-solving game. The concept is simple: After forming teams in their hometowns, students are given kits of common parts—motors, hydraulics, radio controllers—that they must assemble to create robots in six weeks. They are also given a complicated task for the robot to perform. This year, the task is a game called Breakaway, a kind of robot soccer in which the gizmos compete to collect soccer balls and maneuver them into a goal.
Since he started the competition in 1992 in a high school gym in Manchester, Kamen—a self-taught engineer who devised a portable insulin pump when he was barely older than his FIRST competitors—has had one goal. “I wanted to prove you can make a science event every bit as exciting as football or basketball,” he says. “And the byproduct is kids learn how to think, to solve problems and be prepared to take over the world.”
Kamen likes to say he has a day job and a fantasy job, the fantasy job being FIRST. The day job, of course, is running DEKA Research and seeking out and developing new products that he then licenses to manufacturers. One of the most highly anticipated is the Stirling engine, which can convert any fuel—cow dung, for instance—into electricity, and which could have a profound impact in the developing world. Among DEKA’s greatest hits to date are the insulin pump, a stair-climbing wheelchair and a coronary stent. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Defense gave DEKA an $18 million grant to develop a state-of-the-art prosthetic limb; Kamen—a proud nerd—has dubbed it the Luke Arm, after Luke Skywalker. It has 18 degrees of movement (the human arm has 22) and utilizes an electronic gyroscope that senses pitch, yaw and roll—the same device Kamen used in the Segway, his much talked-about, if not best-selling, human transporter. (“I think it’s sold pretty well since it started,” Kamen says a bit defensively. “I don’t know how long it will be before people stop using three thousand–pound cars to drive four blocks.”)
As he makes the rounds of corporate suites, seeking sponsorship for FIRST, his pitch is earnest and alarming: Countries that don’t rise to the challenge of creating a stellar educational system will see precipitous declines in quality of life and economic security. “You get what you celebrate,” says Kamen. “Obsessing over sports crowds out a kid’s ability to see how fun math and science and inventing can be. It is our standard of living and security at stake.”
Plenty of business leaders agree. General Motors gives $135,000 each year to help struggling school districts compete in FIRST, and some 275 of the automaker’s engineers work as team mentors. The computer-aided design maker Autodesk gives all of the teams a copy of its 3-D design program, a $17 million retail value. And Lego sponsors the junior robot contest for elementary and middle schoolers.
Each year, Kamen’s competition births enough uplifting tales to fill a season on the Lifetime channel: the Los Angeles gang member who put down his colors and picked up power tools; the beloved Massachusetts team that received a fire and police escort back into town; the underfunded Bronx students whose robot fell apart en route to Atlanta, prompting other teams to chip in spare parts so they could compete; the Cleveland tech school that was about to be torn down but was saved by its robotics team’s first-place ribbon.
“If you go through our season without a tear in your eye, you might be a robot yourself,” declares Woodie Flowers, a mechanical engineering professor at MIT, who was among FIRST’s founding supporters. Flowers sees the robots “as merely the campfire around which the tribes gather” and believes the group’s true feat is building a sense of “gracious professionalism.” It’s a term that encompasses technical skill, determination, good will and sportsmanship. “We give them a problem too big in a time too short with a budget too small—just like in the real world,” he explains. “And then they achieve their goals with informed thinking and critical analysis. It gives them real self-esteem. Not because some politician comes in and says, ‘Everyone here is a winner.’ No, this self-esteem makes sense and is durable.”
One of FIRST’s greatest strenths is its founder’s talent for promotion. Long before police officers were zipping around on Segways, the mysterious “Project Ginger,” as the then-top-secret transporter was known, was the subject of global obsession, with reports speculating that its impact could equal that of the internet. When Kamen wanted to build a wind turbine on an island he owns in Long Island Sound and the state of New York objected, he playfully seceded from the U.S. And he has burnished his image by opening his home to 60 Minutes and various design magazines.
On this spring day, Kamen has several new projects on his plate. For instance, there’s the Stirling engine, which he recently used to power a couple of villages in Bangladesh using the methane produced by cow dung. He hopes to build a series of trial units for U.S. military outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s looking more and more like we’ll get some serious support for that,” he says, declining to reveal the size of the potential contract.
Throughout our talk, Kamen returns to two themes: the tradition of inventors from Eli Whitney to Thomas Edison, and the FIRST competition. He believes FIRST can be as big as the Super Bowl—when the rest of us are ready. “Ten years after the car was invented, it was still being called the horseless carriage,” he says. “We are reluctant to give up old ideas when something new happens.”
Yet Kamen is undeniably a tech hero of the here and now. One of the coolest things currently on his drawing board is an innovation worthy of James Bond: a set of hydrofoils that allow swimming at twice the speed and half the energy output. “They’re carbon fiber wings, like on a Manta. Really cool,” Kamen says. He built demos for the Navy SEALS, who have tested them and asked him to build more as quickly as he can. “It gives them almost superhuman ability underwater,” he says with a smile. “My guess is that all the Navy SEALS are going to want them.”
Business writer KEVIN GRAY won his first-grade science fair, but his engineer dad did all the work.