Who’s on FIRST? – Inventor Dean Kamen has a Mission to Improve the World and Young Minds

Inventor Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen is a phenomenon. He has invented, among other things, a wearable medication pump, a portable dialysis machine, the Segway PT, an electrical generator that can run on cow dung and produce potable water on the side, and a fully-functional prosthetic arm. He holds more than 440 foreign and domestic patents and counting. And 18 years ago, he launched FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an annual competitive challenge to thousands of children from ages six through high school.

In June of this year Kamen was a panelist at The National Summit in Detroit. It was “Cool!” he exclaimed. “The idea would have been astounding anywhere, but if that crowd of people had actually showed up at Davos [at the World Economic Forum where the world’s smart people discuss the future], or in Washington for a summit I would have been impressed. But when you saw that list of people, and they all showed up in Detroit, it was truly astounding. The Summit had a serious crowd, it was a serious environment with a bunch of focused, serious people.”

Kamen, who was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005, has been inventing things since childhood. He also makes a lot of money doing it, much of which gets plowed back into “projects” worked on in his research and development facility in a 125-year-old former mill in Manchester, New Hampshire. “I have a lot of old mills there,” he explains, “with hundreds of thousands of square feet. The Millyard had everything in it from housing for the employees to the mills.”

Dean Kamen speaks to the more than 80,000 contestants and audience members at the 2008 FIRST Robotics Championship.
Photo by Adriana M. Groisman

The process at Deka Research and Development Corporation, one of Kamen’s companies, involves finding a problem, researching it and then solving it. Kamen amplifies: “Each project we’ve undertaken, from the dialysis machine, to the insulin pump-”to FIRST, in a way-”addresses a really important issue that affects lots of people. And, if we can solve a particular problem we will have made a big improvement. We try to make radical changes in something in the hopes that it will dramatically improve the quality of life. I think life is too short to waste your time doing frivolous things-”which in my case includes things like sleep and vacations.”

He continues, “Every day should be spent doing something important and to me that keeps coming back to developing sustainable ways to improve the quality of life. Lately it includes figuring out how to do that for the 4 billion people who live on two bucks a day or less.”

Kamen repeats for emphasis, “Four billion. It’s a chilling reminder of the world we live in today.”

Does Kamen plan on using breakthrough technology to improve the quality of life for those 4 billion? Yes-”and sometimes not so much. “Most people assume that if you’re trying to bring technology to bear on improving the quality of life or the ability to take care of themselves to the poorest of the poor, it’s got to look like a pair of sticks rubbing together to get fire. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “If we want the poor to have any chance to get on the first rung of the economic ladder, they need productivity tools, more than anyone. They need to take a bigger leap.”

Kamen is given a new challenge by some of the members of one of the FIRST Robotics Championship. Photo by Adriana M. Groisman

Ten years ago Kamen met Iqbal Quadir, the man who created GrameenPhone, the largest cell phone company in Bangladesh. Quadir decided that the microloans made by the Grameen Bank were a way to empower the poorest people in his country by enabling them to buy a cell phone.

Kamen picks up the story: “Cell phone technology is such a powerful, enabling, productivity tool. It’s probably the most sophisticated method of communication, and it’s also cost-effective. In the developing world, where there was no land line, the incremental improvement of going from nothing to cell phones is way, way larger than in Europe or North America where we’ve gone from land lines and slightly inconvenient phones to cell phones.”

Kamen explains further. “The impact of that is that in the poorest countries in the world we’re seeing higher penetration rates of cell phones than in North America. We can do this because we don’t have to retrace the years after the hundred-plus history of copper wires and transformers and switches. That’s a big deal.”

He then links Quadir’s initial “big deal” with the latest project of Deka Research to bring sustainable relief to millions of people. “Ten years after he did that, he had this enormous cell phone penetration. He had a multi-million dollar profitable and self-sustaining business in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. I went to him and said ‘let’s give people electricity and let’s give them water on the same basis-”with point of use, small generation equipment and water remediation equipment.'” At Kamen’s suggestion Quadir went to the same couple of villages he started in, this time with two of Kamen’s latest patented products-”a Stirling engine-powered electrical generator and a water purification system that operates from the heat generated as a byproduct of the generator.

Team members from the Sikorsky team demonstrate their competitive spirit.
Photo by Adriana M. Groisman

“That reconfirmed to me,” Kamen explains, “that you need the most sophisticated-”not the most complex, not the most expensive-”but the most sophisticated true productivity tools. That’s the best shot we have to quickly bring some real hope to people around the world who right now, without it, have no chance to compete, to improve themselves.”

Even comedian Stephen Colbert agreed when he interviewed Kamen about the water purification project on The Colbert Report in November 2008. When told that the purifier could convert any form of contaminated liquid into pure distilled water, Colbert dumped a bag of spicy tortilla chips into the source liquid. The resultant water was pure-”and tasteless.

The BAE-sponsored team and their mentor check out their robot. Photo by Adriana M. Groisman

Kamen says he chooses projects that have “a common theme: a big problem that’s going to affect lots of people, for which a technical breakthrough might enable the solution to succeed. You put those things together, and you look around-”you don’t have to look very far-”and there’s a problem to solve. We look at the intersection of a technology that we have, or think we might soon have, and it might enable a breakthrough in some big area and if that all looks good, we give it a try.”

Kamen and Deka Research work with a number of companies, large and small, who either license or purchase the technology they’ve developed. Kamen says that one of the reasons companies come to him is because he is always trying to do something not yet achieved. “We try to figure out if the basic idea will work and do a quick prototype. It doesn’t matter what it looks like-”it can be on a plywood base, duct-taped down-”because if you’re going to fail, fail fast and fail cheap. If you put all the technology together and do the analysis and it looks like this is actually going to work-”then you go back and start spending a lot of time and money making a final product.”

Which leads to the question of whether FIRST (www.USFIRST.org) was the solution to a problem, and how it evolved into a national competition?

Kamen bristles a bit at the use of the word “evolve”-”that’s something his projects usually don’t do. “Like the difference between most incremental improvements and most big ideas it didn’t evolve. Linear thinking makes new products each year a little better, a little simpler, a little more user-friendly, a little cheaper. Look at the evolution of your PC or cell phone. But the day before there was a PC there wasn’t a linear process that took us from adding machines or a pad and pencil to a mouse and an icon. Those are non-linear steps.”

The FIRST Junior LEGO League competitions also use robots. They start with this basic apparatus from LEGO.

FIRST was a non-linear step. “Because lots of people were worried about how few kids were choosing science and engineering careers. Frankly, they were concerned about how badly kids in the U.S. are doing compared to kids, even in the developing world, in their competence in science and technology. I think all conventional wisdom was assuming ‘it’s a supply problem and it’s an education problem.'”

The conventional wisdom was, according to Kamen’s interpretation, that it was an education crisis. “We need more books, more teachers, more standards, more tests, more vouchers, more time in school-”you know, throw money at it, a classic business approach to a problem.”

Kamen’s perspective was much different. “I looked at it, and thought ‘it can’t possibly be that’s the issue’ because, while we might like to have more standards and more teachers and more books, we already have more of that stuff than the rest of the world and they’re climbing and we’re descending.”

His solution was the non-linear move to FIRST. “Let’s assume they’ve misdiagnosed the entire problem-”and if you don’t diagnose the problem properly you’re probably not going to cure it. I thought the problem wasn’t supply, it’s demand-” or the lack of it”and it’s not an education problem, it’s a culture problem.”

Team 538 watches anxiously as their robot tries to get a ball on a spike. Photo by Adriana M. Groisman

So while others were looking at an education problem, Kamen saw it as something different. “We’ve got to change the culture in this country,” Kamen says. “It’s a culture that creates heroes and role models from only two industries: Hollywood and professional sports. Once you have a generation of kids growing up, particularly women and minorities, where practically every attractive, famous, happy-looking role model they see is an actor or actress or pro sports star, it’s pretty hard to believe these kids are going to develop a passion to sit in school for the next 12 to 15 years studying hard at abstract ideas like algebra when there’s no incentive, no encouragement-”in fact there all sorts of subtle discouragements and disincentives for them to do that.”

So if the problem is not education nor supply, but culture and lack of demand, he has a solution. “Let’s form an organization whose goal is change the culture of the country and increase the demand of these kids whose careers are going to matter in the future of this country. So we set up FIRST-”For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The word ‘education’ isn’t in our name, we’re not considered an educational institution, at least not by people who know us well.”

Kamen explains, “FIRST is very competitive. Kids are obsessed with competition for, ironically, things that don’t matter. Nobody ever walks into a room chanting ‘I want to be second!’ Our logo of the interlaced circle, triangle and square is sort of like the Olympics-”again, a metaphor of sports. If you can put passion into kids and make them see that science and engineering are every bit as accessible, fun, and rewarding as sports, you might change where they put their time and attention. Then you’ll change the outcome. That’s what we ought to be doing.”

A Junior LEGO League member fine-tunes her robot. Photo by Adriana M. Groisman

FIRST competitions started in 1992 and since then more than half million youngsters and hundreds of thousands of volunteers have participated as team mentors or sponsors. Last year’s competition involved 160,000 kids and 73,000 volunteers. What started as a strictly domestic endeavor in high schools has now broadened to include entrants from more than 50 countries. It’s since moved all the way down to the FIRST LEGO League, equivalent to baseball’s Little League. Recently FIRST has included even children from ages six through nine in the Junior LEGO League.

“It was literally an ah-ha moment,” Kamen explains, “that has proceeded to consume the last 18 years of my nights and weekends when I’m not doing my day job. I can leverage what I do in my day job to help-”such as getting corporate sponsors. I think everybody thinks they get out of it more than they put into it.”

For all but the youngest children, the competition involves some sort of robot. The kids form teams sponsored by their school or an outside mentor or company. Delphi Corporation, for instance, sponsored or provided mentors to 11 separate teams, two from their steering gear division in Saginaw, Mich. The teams then compete in state or regional events and the finalists attend the international championships at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. At the 2008 event, the Dome was filled with more than 80,000 contestants and spectators.

The teams are provided a basic set of parts, provided by some of the sponsors, that are used in very creative ways to build robots. The LEGO League participants work with a variety of LEGO building blocks and other appropriate parts.

The FIRST LEGO League was founded 10 years ago and in 2008 Kamen received the LEGO Prize for his efforts. When presenting the $100,000 award LEGO owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen said, “Dean Kamen plays an immensely important role in creating a better future-”harnessing the fantastic creativity and inventiveness that children and young people experience through involvement in FIRST programs.”

“What I tell corporate sponsors, foundations, private donors, the government,” Kamen explains, “is the robot is only a vehicle. Nobody believes that in six weeks what you’re going to be able to do is meaningfully give a kid an education in robotics, or technology or engineering. What these kids are really building is not a robot. They’re building self-confidence, serious relationships with adults. They’re building a meaningful understanding of what life is like for people who think, who can work on complex problems-”and solve them. We’re giving them a microcosm of the world of real, professional people. For many of them, it’s the first time that’s happened-”and it’s had a huge impact on them. As a consequence, it changes where they put their time and their attention.”

This year’s FIRST challenge, called “Smart Move,” is in two parts. In the project phase, teams identify a problem with the way people, animals, information, or things travel in their community, then create an innovative solution, and share it outside the team. In the robot game part of the challenge, teams confront some of today’s transportation safety and efficiency problems and apply robotics, sensor technology, and fresh thinking to solve them. Missions in the challenge include efficiency planning, object avoidance, climbing steep bridges with no guard rails, passenger transport and crash tests.

Three people collaborated with Kamen and FIRST on the transportation challenge. One of them is Susan Zielinski, managing director of SMART, part of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. “It’s not wholly technological, it’s a philosophical and systems approach,” she says. “It’s not just one technology, either, but a huge research component that they’re taking the kids through.” The competition’s broad definition of transportation is her fault, admits Zielinski. “When we at SMART think of transportation we think of moving people, of moving goods, of moving less.”

It will be interesting to see how nearly 200,000 kids interpret-”and solve-”the 2009 challenge.

His day job and his “outside” efforts often coincide for Kamen. “Working on a dialysis machine, without which somebody’s going to die, or an insulin pump without which people have a miserable life-”we work on projects where the obvious consequence of failure is pretty grim. I think FIRST is no different. It’s just a bit more abstract, and it’ll take a little longer.”

Kamen then offers a dire warning for the future. “If this country doesn’t dramatically change the attitudes, and the place where millions of kids are putting their effort every day, this country is doomed.”

At the National Summit in Detroit a survey revealed that Americans are not interested in the manufacturing sector.

Kamen says, “America is in denial. It’s finding excuses for ourselves. It’s easy to say we’ll be a ‘this’ or a ‘that’ economy. But that’s like saying Americans are not into the thinking sector of the world. Frankly, it’s easy to sit on a couch and watch mind-numbing nonsense. It’s easy to choose certain paths over other paths if what you’re trying to do is get instant gratification. In the end, either people are going to be productive and create real wealth by solving real problems in a sustainable way or we’ll kid ourselves for awhile, leveraging our past, and selling off the present and mortgaging the future-” and ending up with the kind of meltdown we had last year when the ugly reality hits us.”

And now is the time to change course. “It’s time we stopped trying to justify it,” he continues, “or dismiss it or be politically correct about it. If we look in the mirror and say ‘it’s time to get serious again and have kids develop the skills by working hard when they’re young, so that they can work hard as adults so that they can improve the quantity and quality of life,’ then things would be good.”

For his part, Kamen has made no small effort toward that improvement.