Action Man

By Thomas K. Grose

Photograph by James Denham.An incredibly successful inventor and entrepreneur, Dean Kamen is about to unveil something that's rumored to be truly revolutionary. But the thing that excites him the most is getting youngsters interested in science and engineering.

Since his own resume makes him sound like the 007 of the laboratory set, inventor Dean Kamen is perfectly suited to help fulfill the task he's set for himself: To help crank up interest in science and technology, he wants scientists and engineers to become role models—superheroes even—for today's young people. Consider that his inventions made him a multimillionaire by 25, and that he's one of the youngest recipients ever to receive the National Medal of Technology, which is bestowed by the President of the United States to America's leading innovators. Kamen has become the media's favorite scientist, thanks to his soon-to-be launched all-terrain, motorized wheelchair (it can even climb and descend stairs), and speculation about his so-called IT project, a super-secret venture that some claim will revolutionize transportation. And don't forget that the handsome, youthful-looking 49-year-old also cruises to work each morning piloting one of the helicopters he designed, and also owns and flies a Citation jet.

Certainly he's got fans. He's often Topic A in comments posted on the online “news for nerds” website, Slashdot.org. Here's a typical remark: “The man is making science sexy. He flies his own helicopters. He made money from nothing but his science . . . I love the guy.” And this is what Sherra E. Kerns an engineering professor at the Olin College of Engineering, a new school in Massachusetts that Kamen has supported, has to say about him: “He is an event on the planet—a creative, energetic and thoughtful person who dedicates his life to doing important things and improving society.”

Wow. But hold on. Kamen, however, refuses to indulge in self-mythologizing: “I don't put myself as a role model,” he says. But then again, neither does Kamen try to force youngsters to view any scientist as a hero. “Kids won't make someone a role model just because we tell them to,” he says. In fact, he adds, the surest way of turning kids off is by trying to tell them who is cool. “You have to let them figure it out themselves.” And the best way to do that, Kamen has decided, is to introduce students to top scientists and engineers and let them see firsthand just what it is that they can do. He figures that the kids will then decide on their own that emulating the people in white lab coats really is cool—especially when they also see that top scientists are not just middle-aged white men, and that their ranks include women and minorities, as well.

Photograph by James Denham.Kamen is clearly annoyed with American pop culture and the type of people it anoints as heroes. “It's become easy to make heroes out of people who don't fundamentally do anything useful . . . like 7-foot-tall people who stand around putting balls in a hole on the wall,” Kamen bemoans. The media helps children get to know who the best sports, music and film stars are, “but they never get to see the best of the best in science and engineering.” What's ironic about this, he adds, is that a child who worships a pro sport star has about a one in a million chance of duplicating his or her success on the playing field, yet there are two million tech jobs going begging in the U.S. because there are not enough qualified applicants.

 

First Things First

Still it was from the world of sports that he copied the blueprint for what he calls his greatest invention: FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a program that brings together America's top engineers and thousands of high-school students. He realized that sports does a brilliant job of marketing itself and promoting its stars to young people. With that in mind, Kamen created FIRST in 1989.

FIRST's premise is simple. Teams of high-school students from around the country are formed, and each works with one professional engineer. The teams are given a specific task, a pile of parts and six weeks to build a robot. The robots then compete at regional tournaments, and the winners go on to vie at a national competition at Disney's Epcot Center in Florida in front of massive roaring crowds. Kamen notes that few fans of pro basketball player Michael Jordan ever get to meet him, let alone get tips from him. “But with FIRST, the thing is, they are playing with the Michael Jordans of engineering.” People who have been involved with FIRST rave about it. A businessman whose company has sponsored FIRST teams, exclaimed on Slashdot.org, “This could probably be called the Geek Olympics. It is intense and fun. If you get a chance to do it, grab on with both hands.”

Perhaps the best thing about FIRST is how well it works with students who are not technically inclined—or at least think they're not. “In fact,” Kamen enthuses, “it works best with them. Most kids start out feeling that science and engineering is not for them.” Raw aptitude in science and math is great, he says, but “desire is worth a whole lot more than opportunity or talent.” Not every child who gets hooked on science can go on to earn a Ph.d. in electrical engineering, Kamen admits, but they may become electrical technicians. “And that's better than flipping hamburgers.”

Kamen's flare for gadgets and entrepreneurialism developed early. Before starting college at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Kamen devised an audiovisual control system and pocketed $60,000—not exactly chump change in those days. He bailed out of college in his third year after inventing an auto-syringe, a portable infusion pump that dispenses drugs. Since then, he hasn't looked back, going on to found his Manchester, N.H., research company, DEKA Research & Development, and to invent such other devices as a portable dialysis machine. His name graces more than 100 patents so far. Kamen sees no contradiction in his fierce support for education and his own status as a drop-out. “There is a big difference in saying I didn't get a diploma and didn't get an education,” he explains. “I own my success to education.” Kamen also describes his father as his personal hero, though he was an illustrator who “had no technical inclinations at all.” But Kamen's father was a hard-working man, who instilled in his son a granite-hard work ethic. Kamen recalls him saying, “You'd better pick something you like to do . . .if you pick a job that you are not passionate about, you are wasting your life.”

Dean Kamen demonstrates one of his most talked about inventions, an all-terrain motorized wheelchair that can even climb stairs.  Photograph by James Denham.Despite his successes, Kamen has only recently become well-known. Things began to change last year when stories about his Independence 3000 Ibot surfaced. That's his stair-climbing wheelchair. Kamen got the idea after watching a wheelchair-bound man struggle around a shopping mall, a supposedly wheelchair-friendly environment. Kamen's Ibot—which needed $100 million and years to develop—uses gyroscopes to balance itself on two wheels, and can rise up to allow occupants to talk to people at eye-level. Sensors send thousands of messages to its onboard computers to help it to mimic natural body movement. Commercial production may begin later this year. Though they will retail for around $25,000, “demand will be exceeding supply for a while.”

But what really catapulted Kamen to the front pages was news early this year of his IT project, also code named Ginger. After the likes of such people as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos called it revolutionary and possibly more important than the Internet, speculation about what Kamen was up to abounded. Most of it centered on Jetson-like personal flying machines. Kamen, while remaining tight-lipped, did say that many of the pronouncements were way too grand. The downscaled conjecture is that he has fused his Ibot's gyroscope technology to hydrogen fuel cells based on the Stirling engine, an external combustion power source that's clean and efficient, but has so far proved too costly to mass produce. The result may be an environmentally friendly, untippable scooter. Kamen deflects all questions about IT with the comment that he doesn't talk about his projects. But he concedes that the media “hoopla” was “unfair and it was unfortunate that it happened, and I hope it doesn't happen again.” As for suggestions that he orchestrated the press coverage using leaks, Kamen bristles. Those comments, he says, were “embarrassing and unnecessary, and . . . wrong.”

While the media onslaught that enveloped Kamen may have been initially far-fetched and eventually nasty, perhaps the silver lining is that it shows that the public remains ready to embrace scientific achievement. That may be a good thing in an era when fears about genetically modified foods and cloning have fostered global distrust and suspicion about science. The headlines, too, may boost Kamen's quest to popularize technology in schools. And Kamen minces no words about what will happen if we fail in training more kids in technology and allow those two million jobs to remain empty. If America does not exploit its strengths and continue to push technology's boundaries, he warns, “it will no longer enjoy a standard of living that's been the envy of the world.”

And Kamen is not about to let that happen without putting up a fight worthy of James Bond.

 

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer living in Great Britain