You Get What You Celebrate: An Interview with Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen, who spoke at PlanetPTC Live this week, might be best known as the founder of FIRST Robotics, but he’s also a consummate inventor. He holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents and is responsible, among many other things, for the invention of the portable dialysis machine and the insulin pump.

Kamen’s company DEKA Research & Development Corporation created the iBOT wheelchair with self-balancing technology which allows users to go up and down staircases, and “stand” at eye level with the people around them. Kamen’s “Luke” arm (named after Luke Skywalker’s robotic arm) restores functionality for war vets with upper extremity amputations.

I spent a few moments with Kamen before his keynote speech at PlanetPTC Live.

What’s the next big global challenge we’re going to face and where should young engineers be focusing their attention?

There are a class of global challenges that are about to overcome us unless we come up with some great technologies quickly. We’ve got over seven billion people on this planet and most of them don’t get up in the morning confident that they’ll find portable water. Nearly half of them don’t have access to reliable electricity.

When you look at the environment, energy, food, healthcare, communications – it’s all got to get better really fast and it’s only going to happen if we create some great new technologies. We (DEKA) are now working on making point-of-use water available for a few billion people. We are working on a small box that takes waste products and turns that into electricity. But categorically across the board we need a generation of scientists, engineers, innovators, technology people that are going to keep this whole global village one step ahead of catastrophe.

What was your initial vision for FIRST Robotics and has it surprised you in anyway?

There’s plenty of schools and plenty of great teachers, we’re not in the education business and we’re not in the whining and complaining about education business.

The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST was you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.

We have a country that celebrates almost to obsession the world of sports and entertainment. They’re all great things, but I said if we could create—using sports and entertainment—an environment in which kids, particularly women and minorities, could see the world of science and technology is every bit as fun, rewarding and exciting as bouncing a ball, and through that passion they can become superstars in science, technology and innovation, they would give this country the opportunity to remain a leader in the world and establish a quality of life and a standard of living that would continue to be a model for the world.

How can engineering companies attract new blood?

After 20 years of running FIRST it’s clear that the people that get to the kids when they’re young end up bonding with the students, teachers and community. These kids stay in school because of FIRST and go onto college, and far more of them study science and engineering. And when they come out they want to go to the companies that adopted them when they were kids. We’re creating a pipeline for the major companies. The 3,500 corporate sponsors that we have now are picking these kids up. They’re creating their own future workforce.

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