Don’t hunt attention; attract it.
Dean Kamen is known for introducing the Segway back in 2001. But to think of him as a weird gizmo guy would be to miss the genius of a man out to save the world. As the founder of DEKA Research & Development, which now has some 800 engineers, Kamen has innovated everything from a water purifier for developing countries to a kidney dialysis machine for the home to the iBOT, a wheelchair that goes up and down steps and — surprise! — is about to pop a wheelie in automating corporate America.
What will be your biggest challenge in 2020?
I’d be happy to tell you, but we’d have to kill you.
Let’s say you don’t. How should entrepreneurs of all ages look to the future?
Don’t waste your time making a quick buck on some stupid consumer product. I’m sorry, but we’re in desperate need of better medical outcomes, better ways to give people energy and transportation without destroying the environment. Use your talent to do something good for the world, and that will be good for you as well.
So, about this iBOT stair-climbing wheelchair of yours…
When Fred Smith [founder and CEO of FedEx] called over a year ago and said, “We want to make the world’s best last-mile delivery bot,” I said, “Fred, I could start from scratch and spend $100 million, but, well, if we pull the seating system off my iBOT and put a cargo pod on top, it will go through doorways and up and down curbs — and help me get the wheelchairs to all those vets who desperately need it.” He literally said, “Can we get together tonight?” And we now have three of those little demo bots trundling autonomously around Memphis, Dallas, and Manchester, New Hampshire. They call it Roxo.
The self-driving part must have required a bit more than taking off the seat.
Oh, yeah. No, no, no. We had to put a whole team together to create a very advanced little Roxo that’s learning as it goes everywhere using AI. It is astounding what this puppy will do.
And FedEx is collaborating with companies like Target, Walgreens, and Walmart on this bot, right? Is the delivery guy toast?
Remember, this is not an alternative to a fleet of 747s flying all night or the trucks that go from the centralized point. This is a totally new and incremental business for them.
What other automation trends do you see down the pike?
The biggest one we’re working on is building a platform that allows the large-scale manufacture of replacement human organs. With an $80 million jump-off grant from the Department of Defense, we’ve put together a coalition of more than 87 companies and plan to demonstrate a platform in five years. It’s essentially about robotics.
Can we quickly talk electric scooters? Will the current craze for micromobility continue?
Our first Segway came from the iBOT, a class 3 medical device. Now [electric scooters] are cheap enough that these companies [like Lime and Bird] can afford to throw them all over the place and charge people to use them for a few minutes. I think there’ll be a backlash. And I think their bad behavior will make it hard for well-thought-out, clean, lightweight alternatives [to automobiles] to be adopted.
What problems keep you up at night?
Trying to get my FIRST robotics program [for kids] into every country in the world. We’re in 72,000 schools in the U.S. In October, the FIRST Global event was in Dubai. The game was to make robots able to pull as many of these little objects off the field as possible, which represent plastics taken out of the ocean. I’ve been at this for 30 years. We hire these kids. I’m looking for talent!