Ask most US tweens or teenagers to name his or her hero, and you'll get a list long on professional athletes and short on engineers.
Dean Kamen, whose best-known invention is the two-wheeled, gyroscopic Segway electric vehicle (although you could debate whether it's his most important), decries that imbalance. In the same breath, he points to America's glorification of competition on the playing field as its best weapon in getting the next generation excited about innovation and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
"We've got a culture that is obsessed over sports and entertainment," Kamen, 63, observed during a recent conversation from his office, housed in a former textile mill in Manchester, N.H. "It works, so let's use that model to create among those same kids a passion for developing the one muscle that matters for their future, the muscle hanging between their ears.”
This year, Kamen's 25-year-old non-profit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition and Technology) will touch approximately 350,000 students, who will collaborate with more than 64,000 mentors and adult supporters in one of several challenges focused on assembling robotics technologies and programming them to handle specific tasks. An example of one tournament game is demonstrated in the video below:
Consider that there were only 20 teams in the first year, back in 1989. The original focus was on high-school students, but FIRST now reaches kids as early as kindergarten through its Lego leagues. "We are the only sport that every kid in every school can participate in, and then turn pro," Kamen declares.
Furthering his theme of turning technologists into celebrities, Kamen regularly recruits highly visible individuals who straddle both worlds to fire up kids. Exhibit A is Black Eyed Peas frontman will.iam, who created an apparel brand that incorporates recycled plastic bottles and is an active supporter of STEM scholarships and programs. (Did we mention will.i.am is also director of "creative innovation" for Intel, and a founding shareholder in Beats Electronics?) Random trivia: Some of the technology the Peas wore onfield during their 2011 SuperBowl half-time show was created by a FIRST "graduate."
Kamen gives himself an average C grade for FIRST's overall visibility: he won't rest until every US school participates. But he believes FIRST gets an A+ for its transformative impact on those who have participated, including "big gruff engineers" who weep openly when their students earn a trophy.
Indeed, FIRST now has more than 3,500 sponsors that will contribute to $19 million in college scholarships in 2014 alone, including founding supporters like Xerox, Kamen's own DEKA Research and Development and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers; and strategic partners such as Google, PTC, National Instruments, Rockwell Automation and dozens of others.
"I can tell you right now, the reason we have so many great sponsoring companies is it isn't philanthropy to them anymore," Kamen notes. "It's enlightened self-interest. I think almost all the companies, including my own, that support FIRST and FIRST teams do it because we're creating our next generation of superstars."
Kamen is no slouch himself, of course, with more than 440 patents to his name. Aside from FIRST, the bulk of his time is dedicated to DEKA, the holding company for all manner of innovative medical devices, including next-generation prosthetics and orthotics.
DEKA's portfolio is incredibly diverse ranging from his first invention, a wearable infusion pump, to creations like Slingshot, a portable, low-energy water purifier being installed by Coca-Cola in developing communities. The income from those technologies funds more ambitious projects that may or may not every catch on, such as the IBOT Mobility System, an all-terrain wheelchair that climbs stairs.
"The unintended consequence of redefining success as lack of failure is that we quickly become so risk-averse."
DEKA's recruiting process is illustrative of the sorts of skills that FIRST is attempting to encourage. Anyone who wants in is subjected to a "whiteboarding" session that includes the candidate plus 10 senior people. The topic may or may not cover the person's actual area of expertise, because that's sort of a given if you've been invited.
Instead, the group debates all sorts of questions to which there is no right answer. More than anything else, the experience is meant to gauge whether or not someone can be a team player, and whether they are willing to take the sorts of well-reasoned risks necessary for meaningful innovation.
Here's what gets considered: "Do they get defensive? Do they go into denial? Are they willing to throw out ideas? Do they respond when you laugh? When they watch two of your own guys have a debate about what the right answer is, do they join in? Are they thick-skinned? Because in the end, all I want around DEKA are people that are passionate about technology that have a feel for it, like to be challenged by problems to which there is probably no good answer, that can collaborate when necessary, cooperate, but stand their ground and take a position and make sure [an argument] is well-heard and well thought-out."
By the way, what degree you hold is secondary, despite the fact that DEKA is in close proximity to some of the top science schools in the United States including Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, Princeton Yale and, yes, the local trade school. Even though he's technically a physicist, Kamen never graduated from college and he jokes that all you need to apply for a job at DEKA is an "associate's degree," as in you know somebody.
All in all, he's an equal opportunity innovator: There's a wind turbine on Kamen's property and his garage includes one of the first Tesla electric vehicles to drive off the production line. When he's in the mood, he commutes to DEKA by piloting one of his helicopters. His own childhood was less than orthodox, maybe partly because his father was an illustrator for EC Comics, the label run by the founder of Mad magazine. By the time Kamen graduated high school (just barely), he was building gadgets in his parent's Long Island basement and making more money than both of them, combined.
Kamen credits his father for teaching him that making mistakes is simply part of the recipe for future success, especially when innovation is on the line.
"People are under enormous pressure, I think, to not fail," he says. "Parents don’t want to see the pain of failure. The teachers punish you for failing. Your boss punishes you for failing. So people learn throughout their life gradually, to find all sorts of ways to not fail, which frankly is easy to do. But again, the unintended consequence of redefining success as lack of failure is that we quickly become so risk-averse and everything we do in life is only marginally better than what we did yesterday. Life is so short. We shouldn’t waste any of it trying to do anything marginal."
What was the best advice you ever got?
It was from my father when I was a little kid. He said, ‘Find something you love to do and learn how to do it so well that you can make a living doing it, because if you don’t do that you’re going to have to make a living doing something you don’t like doing.' … Then the follow-up to that was ‘Whatever you do as long as you continue to believe in it, don’t give up.'
What was your biggest mistake, if you could list just one?
I've never regretted anything I've done, even the things that I’ve failed at. I’ve often regretted not trying something really big, because you’ll never know.
What would you tell your younger self?
Get used to dealing with failure, as long as it doesn’t hurt people around you, as long as it doesn’t hurt you physically, or it doesn’t hurt you so much that you can’t pick yourself up. Don’t be irresponsible in your risks, but as long as the project can fail without it causing the person to fail, keep trying, keep taking the best shots, learn from them, pick yourself up. If people ridicule you look them in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, I may have failed, but at least I tried’ and get on with it.