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The Curious Man

This article appears in the 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference edition of the Detroiter Magazine. Click here for more information on the Conference.

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By Dawson Bell

Inventor extraordinaire Dean Kamen is enthusiastic about coming to Michigan – really enthusiastic, like “Get me on the next plane” enthusiastic. Except, of course, that in his case he can fly himself; Kamen has a heliport attached to his home in New Hampshire.

Asked about his upcoming appearance at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Kamen – most celebrated as the inventor of the Segway mobility device, but also the holder of more than 440 patents who says he’s most proud of launching the international science, robotics and technology competition for young people called FIRST – launches into a five-minute paean to Michigan, its corporate, political and education leaders.

“Michigan has embraced FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) like nowhere else in the country,” he said. “Your governors, the corporations, the education community, the University of Michigan, Wayne State, Kettering … just latched on to the idea. When they invited me to attend (the Mackinac Policy Conference), how could I say no?”

Kamen is obviously passionate about FIRST, which he co-founded in 1989 as a “sort of Michael Jordan meets Albert Einstein,” he said, mix of training, exhibition and competition in which teams of young people compete in various categories and age divisions to develop technology, robotics and engineering solutions. This year, more than 300,000 participants from 50 countries will compete in FIRST competitions.

A Long Island native, his father was a renowned graphic artist who worked for Mad magazine and science-fiction pioneer Ray Bradbury, among others. Kamen says his father was “still drawing on his last day” of life. And the only art work on display at his sprawling and unconventional home – in addition to the heliport, it features spiral staircases, secret passages and a giant steam engine once owned by Henry Ford – are those created by the elder Kamen.

Kamen-blockquoteFamily, in the form of a brother who suffered from diabetes, inspired some of his earliest scientific endeavors as well, including the invention of the first wearable infusion drug and insulin pumps. Kamen sold the company that developed the pumps at age 30, subsequently founding DEKA Research and Development Corporation, which he continues to lead today. DEKA has launched a dizzying array of medical devices, technology to increase the mobility and independence of the disabled (and, in the case of Segway, the in-a-hurry-abled), energy generators and water purification systems.

“I know (these endeavors) sound completely unrelated, but I wouldn’t characterize them that way at all,” Kamen said. “They’re all very much related to the principle that, if we succeed, we will have a positive impact on people’s lives.”

The insulin pump, for instance, made it possible for many diabetics – for the first time in their lives – to achieve near normalcy in blood sugar levels, eliminating the wild swings, which are blamed for many of the disease’s long-term complications. Similarly, Kamen said, he worked to develop a home-based dialysis treatment system because the inconvenience and indignity attached to the use of traditional hospital- and clinic-based dialysis meant that many patients weren’t getting all of its available benefits.

The dialysis machine led Kamen to work on another of his passions: the development of a portable, self-powered water purification system, after discovering that one of the limits on widespread use of home dialysis was the scarcity of clean water around the globe.

The water purification system, dubbed Slingshot, remains one of DEKA’s principal undertakings. A partnership with Coca-Cola has led to its deployment in trials in five countries, and Kamen says, if successful, it could ultimately improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people by preventing the spread of disease.

Prevention is one of Kamen’s touchstones. In a 2010 TED talk, he quoted one of his heroes, Albert Einstein, saying: “Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them.” Unorthodoxy is another. In the 2014 documentary, SlingShot, about Kamen’s quest for effective, affordable clean water, featured in last year’s Freep Film Festival, Kamen said, “Throughout my life, I only start on projects typically if enough credible people tell me, ‘You’re nuts’ because then you know this must be a big problem.”

And it helps explain his passion for FIRST, and the development of technological talent to address seemingly intractable issues, like disease, poverty and energy. Students inspired by science and technology today, he said, will be the ones who tackle those issues tomorrow.

Kamen never completed his own degree in engineering. He said he spent the best five years of his life as a freshman, but became too busy launching his career as an inventor and entrepreneur to go to class. Nevertheless, he says he got a great education inside and out of the classroom, and believes that projects like the FIRST competitions can provide similar inspiration and education for those who might otherwise never be exposed to the exhilaration of discovery.