Dean Kamen is an inventor, an entrepreneur and a tireless advocate for science and technology. His passion for technology and its practical uses has driven his personal determination to spread the word about technology’s virtues, and by so doing, to change the culture of the United States. In addition to founding DEKA Research and Development, one of Kamen's proudest accomplishments is founding FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use and enjoy science and technology.
How did you get to where you are today?
Necessity is the mother of invention. As a young kid, I decided I didn’t like being told what to do. I liked to understand the problem at hand and decide how to go about solving it myself. I also decided early on I didn’t like being judged by people. It occurred to me as a kid, “Wow, if I can’t deal with this, and deal with somebody judging me as a kid when I’m in school and it’s supposed to be fun, and it's easy, and you’re a kid and you only go to school for a little bit, what am I going to do when I grow up and I have to have a job and a boss and somebody to judge me?” I decided I will learn what I need to know so that I can solve problems in new and different ways, and if my solutions are really good, people will pay me for them. I will supply value to the world and the world will supply recognition and reward for me, and I won’t be judged by some arbitrary teacher or parent or boss. I’ll be judged by history — did I make stuff that the world wanted and needed?
What are the qualities required to be at the forefront of innovation?
I think innovation needs a lot of things. I think in many fields, having the technology capability is certainly a huge piece of what it takes, but in reality, innovation takes perseverance. It takes the willingness to fail, and fail, and fail, and then fail a little bit more. So innovation has a lot to do with technology, but it also has a lot to do with patience and perseverance and persuasiveness. Getting the world to change is not easy.
How do you go about prioritizing your innovation queue?
The way I prioritize is, primarily, it has to be an important project. It has to be a project that, if we succeed at it, it will have been worth trading the amount of time and effort and energy we put into it, which is why I work on medical devices and artificial organs and prosthetic limbs and water for the developing world. I don’t have time to work on nonsense or amusements or silly toys and products that don’t matter.
How do you measure the effectiveness of any one of your innovations?
When you look at the impact you have on the lives of people with medical products, it always makes you feel like you made a good choice. If you’re getting good results and you’re providing them to lots of people, or in the case of something like FIRST, talking to the kids and seeing that you’ve changed their attitudes — you know that their life is going to go a different way because they’ve been involved with FIRST.
How is FIRST making a difference in students’ education?
It gives these kids self-confidence; it gives them the ability to analyze their own situation and what their options are in life; and typically it gives them a reason to focus on working hard at learning. As a result, they’re more valuable to themselves, their families, their companies, their country — it’s just a win for everybody.