Russ: Welcome back to the show. My guest today: Dean Kaman, inventor and innovation machine. He invented Segway, AutoSyringe, iBOT, and has numerous, as I understand it, 440 patents that are all out there integrated into the world. Dean, welcome to the show.
Dean: Nice to be here.
Russ: You bet. So, the breadth of your accomplishments and interests is mind boggling, and of interest to our audience, for sure. What’s top of mind today, second quarter, 2016?
Dean: The themes don’t change. I’m still passionate about, particularly technology education, but getting kids excited about careers in science, technology, engineering because in this country somehow, particularly women and minorities, think that engineers are people that drive trains and scientists are nerds that are anti-social, middle-aged, white males, off in a lab somewhere. And the only exciting people that kids have as role models seem to be bouncing a ball, or running around a stage, and all the heroes and all the role models are from Hollywood, or the NBA, or the NFL. And in a free country where you get what you celebrate, if we don’t put people in front of kids that they want to celebrate that invent things, design things, solve problems, this country will continue to slide relative to the rest of the world, and its capacity to be the innovative place that creates the new technologies, that creates the new industries, and therefore, the jobs.
So my first program to, to get kids passionate about tech is still top of mind, it’s always top of mind. In my day jobs still, medical technology is top of mind, and it’s an incredibly exciting time now with proteomics, and genomics, and nanotechnology, and regenerative medicine. And we’re working on lots of medical products to help people get out of the hospital to live healthier lives, better lives; make it more accessible, more affordable. So, it’s a great time to be doing medical stuff and we’re doing some energy stuff, and we’re making clean water systems for the developing world; we stay busy.
Russ: What you going in the very beginning?
Dean: I’ve always been afraid of the one thing I’m going to run out of: time. It’s the only thing you can’t make more of, it’s the only thing that in the end, gets us all. And so, from the time I was very young, I’ve been racing against time to try to do as many things as I can do. Even if I do some of them half bake, and they may not work, I look back at all the stupid mistakes I’ve ever made and thought about them. And what always gives me, maybe, solace, and willingness to keep going is I say, “Would I have changed that? Would I have not tried that? Would I have felt better if I was sitting here saying, I wish I tried that?” And to this day, in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever been as sorry about any failures I’ve had as I would be if I had to sit here and say to you, I never tried that. So, I’m driven by the fact that we all have a very short time on, on this planet of ours, and we ought to use every minute of it.
Russ: Ok, so what most people know or think about when they hear your name is, Segway, which is impressive, incredible. The way I understand it was sort of pre-announced was a comment that Steve Jobs made in an article. The expectations soared. The product is incredible might not be used as much as you and the other visionaries originally thought how do you look back at that?
Dean: So, in the first place, as I said I do mostly medical stuff, and yet as you point out, the Segway; even the Segway is the result of a medical product. The iBOT; a standing, balancing device to help paraplegics and quadriplegics get around, but unlike most of the other medical products we make; dialysis machines, and insulin pumps for diabetics that don’t have some other fun commercial use. Nobody that doesn’t need dialysis is going to say, “Boy I wish I could have one of those machines in my bedroom.” But once we made the iBOT, and it could stand up, and keep a person at eye level, and cruise around balancing, once we learned how to make those sensors, and those gyros, and those computers simulate human walking and balance, we said, “Take the seat off this thing, put the base lower, and people can use this to get around.” Especially in congested, pedestrian areas. So, even the Segway was almost a fun weekend project after years of developing the serious medical version of it.
But to your point, it was such a fun, exciting thing, and there are still way, way, more billions more pedestrians than people with (Russ: Right. Right) cars. And with the whole global population moving to cities, we said, “If people will start using this for these short distances, instead of bringing great big cars, which are great on the highways, so that they creep around at 3 miles an hour in the city, it’s nuts.” This could really be a huge environmental, uh, uh impact, it could be a huge fund impact, it could be something that’s a whole new form of transportation. Now, Steve Jobs and others did make those comments, and they did get out of hand, and they were taken out of context by people that are in the business of helping things. And so, I don’t know how that happened.
I think, to this day, people think I’m some brilliant marketing guy. I really don’t know how it happened. I didn’t plan it. It really was a leak when I said it was a leak. And of course, as I suspected, it set people’s expectations at a place that nothing can ever match it. No real technology can ever match your imagination. And then, years later, people would say to me, “Well, you know, it, it failed.” And I’m thinking, it failed. Let’s see, there’s hundreds of thousands of these machines all over the world. They spawned a new industry of all these balancing devices that you see. The word Segway is known in every language. You go to every major city and people are cruising around on them. If that’s my worst failure, so be it (Russ: it’s a good failure.). And then, and then, people say, “Yeah, but not everybody’s using them.” And I say, “Well, let’s see. The Wright Brothers flew in 1903. It was a long time before you were collecting your frequent flyer miles.”
Edison invented the light bulb, you know, and the next day everybody read about this invention with the same candle that they used the night before. It takes a generation to accept any new technology. You know, Henry Ford made a car and for the first 15 years they called it a horseless carriage. It’s not a horseless carriage, it’s a car. So, I think history is going to answer the question of whether pedestrians will continue to walk the way they did in ancient Greece until 10 years ago, as the only means of getting around other than spaceships, and submarines, and automobiles. Whether that’s what they’ll continue to do, or over time, will people more and more, in a congested, pedestrian environment be using advanced technologies, like Segway. I think they will. Let’s let history answer that question.
Russ: There you go. You know, what, what I just learned when you told me that, I thought, I thought the iBOT came after the Segway.
Dean: Everybody thinks the iBOT came later.
Russ: It’s the other way around.
Dean: I work on medical stuff, I made that iBOT work, and when we saw the smile in people’s faces that, in some cases, had been living down in 39 inches in a wheelchair for their whole life, pop up, and one of my engineers said, “Dean, this is just so cool. Everybody’s going to want these.” And we said, “Well, let’s take the seat off and let’s take everything, and let’s make it so that everybody can experience this, essentially, synthetic balance.” And we did it.
Russ: From what I’ve read about you, you’re a capitalist and that’s right.
Dean: And proud of it.
Russ: Well, me too. And but, but you just, demonstrate the value of it so significantly. Once, the way I read about it, once I, I think you came out with your AutoSyringe, and you, you did very well financially, but you took that money and put it back into innovations that have impacted the world significantly; created jobs, created industries. It’s just an unusual time. In addition to people not understanding math very well, they don’t seem to understand economics anymore, do you agree with that?
Dean: I totally agree with that. But, you’re right, every time I’ve had a success with any product I just have more resources. People say, “Well, why don’t you slow down?” I say, “Are you crazy?” Now that I have more resources, and I have more engineers, I have nearly 500 technical people now. Every time we succeed at something we just plow it all back into something that’s a bigger, more potentially exciting opportunity to help more people. That’s what you do in life. My grandfather, when I was a little kid, was explaining money to me. He came over on the boat, and lived in Brooklyn like everybody in his generation. And he said, “Dean, money is a lot like manure. If you pile it up, it just stinks. If you spread it around, it helps things grow.” And, and to me, the reason you start a business is to create something that people need and sometimes, I don’t do too many of those things, people, things that people want.
And if you succeed at it, the metric by which you succeed is people are willing to part with their hard earned cash to have this thing, which means it must be higher performance or lower cost than any alternative. That’s why people decided to use it. And if you can do that, particularly in the medical field, that means your’re giving people better health care, and/or at lower cost, and that makes you feel good. But if you succeed at that, one of the things you get for that is a reward; money, capital, profit. I just take that and, and certainly some of it goes to the people as an appropriate incentive, and some of it gets put away, some of it you buy your toys with. But, in the end, you only have so much time for toys. What I do with the rest of it is I invest in what we hope will be the next big opportunity to make a big difference. And I typically focus on building it around technology because technology is what I know.
And, if we can create better technologies to meet real needs, that’s what we do, and yes I am a capitalist, and anybody that says they’re not a capitalist because, well, that’s not fair how people end up. I say to those people, “Yeah, capitalism ends up giving people different opportunities, which causes them to have different outcomes.” The alternative to capitalism, in which there is, I must admit, an unequal distribution of wealth, would be the alternative where there is an equal distribution of poverty. Which do you want?
Russ: Right. Absolutely. I’ve always contended that capitalism helps the poor more than any other system does as well. But, but I want to move to FIRST, uh, but I want to connect it back to capitalism. I mean, from what I know about FIRST, it is definitely needed within American society today sounds fun and exciting. Does it include an economics portion too?
Dean: FIRST is a microcosm of the real world, in every way. You give kids a pile of stuff and you say, build a robot that will do this job better than anybody else. Here’s the stuff. And the reason it’s exciting to kids is the same reason a football game is exciting. If the football game started with, this team is going to win. FIRST is a situation which is, in every way, not a classroom situation. It’s a hands on taste of the real world. You don’t have enough time, you don’t have enough resources, you don’t know what your competitors going to do. You’ve got to conceive it, design it, build it. It’s going to fail; rebuild it. You’re running out of time; ship it, compete with it, deal with failure, celebrate success. Well, the team quickly learns we’ve got to raise money, we’ve got to get organized, we need management, we need leadership. FIRST is a microcosm of the real world in a fun way.
So we said, “the best of all worlds is create an environment where kids can see all the power and all the excitement of problem solving and inventing, and all the challenges of engineering in science and mathematics, but they can do it in the same kind of environment as where they do sports where, if your team didn’t win, you know what, it was a fun experience anyway. So, we did it, and the first year we did it we had 23, or 20 some odd teams. The next year, about double. We’ve had 55% compound annual growth for 26 years. So, this year, we had more than 46,000 schools from 86 countries. We had 127 events in our March Madness season. Our championship last year was in St. Louis under the dome, under the arch; 70,000 seat arena. And next year, our championship is coming, not just to Houston, but I can officially say coming back to Houston, because in 2004, when, after we had been around, I don’t know 10 or 15 years, we outgrew every other arena.
We outgrew a big arena that they built for us at Epcot, at Disney, and we moved to, what was then the Astrodome (Russ: The Astrodome.). Then, we moved for a number of years to the home of the Olympics, the Georgia Dome. Now we’re in St. Louis at the Edward Jones arena. But next year, we are back in Houston the 20th through the 22nd of April.
Russ: Fantastic. I’m really looking forward to it. Well, Dean, I really appreciate you sharing your perspective with us today
Dean: Thank you.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Dean Kamen.
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