Entrepreneur Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and creator of FIRST, runs the most incredible science and technology (robots!) competition you never heard of. High school students worldwide compete for more than $50 million in scholarships. An amazing story!
Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV. Championing innovation here in Houston, Texas. Coming to you today from the George R. Brown Convention Center, where I’m very excited to have as my guest, the inventor of the Segway, of iBOT, and also of AutoSyringe, and the founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen. Dean, welcome to the show.
Dean: Nice to be back.
Russ: You bet. So, tell us about FIRST.
Dean: FIRST is an acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The most important thing to notice about our name is the word education isn’t in it. I’m an inventor. What do inventors do? Inventors look at the same problems everybody else look at but see them differently. Thirty years ago, a lot of serious people in leadership in this country, in government, in industry, in education were all clamoring about the education crisis. The education crisis. What they meant, the industry people said there aren’t going to be enough scientists and engineers to stay competitive to fill the workforce. The government was worried that we’re not going to have people even for the defense department. Universities were worried about falling interest in science and technology. It was an education crisis. I said, I don’t think so. It’s a culture crisis. We had become a country that obsesses over two industries: the world of sports and the world of entertainment.
Dean: And I said, look people, why do you think particularly girls and minorities in this country are so sparse in going through school, going on to college, and even thinking about science and engineering? If it was a fundamental education problem, it would affect everybody. But you see in our culture, we have made superheroes, from the NBA, the NFL and Hollywood, and unless you have a pair of professional parents that can say, “Yeah, that stuff is fun, it’s great, do your homework. Yeah, ice cream is great eat your vegetables first.” It turns out that particularly for women and minorities, the devastation that occurs when they think the only fun, exciting career options are the world of sports or entertainment, I said, you know what? Let’s not fight that.
Kids get very passionate about sports. They’re willing to spend hour after hour practicing to get really good at something that is supposed to be just for fun. But math, they don’t want to do that at all. Physics, they’ll do it pass/fail or not at all. I said, in this free country, in a free country where you get the best of what you celebrate, our problem is not that the schools aren’t ready to teach, our problem is that the kids are the customers and they’re not interested in the product, because they really believe that the only fun, exciting career opportunities to be a big success, again, it’s entertainment, it’s Hollywood, or it’s the NBA.
So, I said 30 years ago, here’s the deal, we know sports creates passion in kids to excel at something. What if we could make them excel not at running or jumping or throwing or catching or kicking or bouncing. What if we could get them to excel at something that develops the muscle hanging between their ears? What if we took all the trappings that are so attractive about sports and turn it into something that will give them the skill sets to create careers and luck? We know why they like sports. Ironically, we justify sports by saying, well, but it’s important that they learn teamwork.
So, I said, wow, the sports folks have got it nailed. I’m going to make a sport. And I’m going to let girls and minorities very quickly see we can make this stuff just as accessible and just as rewarding as any other sport they do, and it will have the same trappings the cheerleaders, and the school bands, and the mascots, and there’s no quizzes and tests. The only difference between our sport and every other sport is in our sport, every kid on every team can turn pro. Right now, as you sit here in this country, there are seven million unfilled technical jobs because people can’t do it. They don’t have the skill sets. If you say to these kids, yeah, I like sports too, but even if you’re on a varsity high school sport, you pick the sport, the probability that you’ll ever make a nickel playing professional sports is smaller than the probability that you could win a million-dollar lottery.
There are more million-dollar lottery winners every year then there are open positions in the NBA or the NFL. So, let’s give the kids some reality. Let’s give them something that, every bit, every bit is as much fun and accessible as any other sport, but it can give them career options. So, I started FIRST: For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. If this country wants to be first in the world in our standard of living, our quality of life, our security, we better be first. I don’t think you want this country to be second; not with our military, not with our industry, not with our healthcare. You don’t want to be second on that stuff. So, we formed FIRST.
Russ: And that’s what’s going on right behind you right now. A competition of young people that have built their own robots in an organized, competitive landscape that takes place all over the globe now, right?
Dean: We started with 23 companies in 1991 or ’92. We’ve had something like 55% compound annual growth in our thirty years. After five years, instead of having one event in a high school gym—you know the first year, 23 companies. It took me the whole country to get them. They came from everywhere. In year two, we had about 50. In year three, about 100. In year four, a couple hundred. Finally, in the fifth year, I said, uh oh, I’ve run out of Fortune 500 companies that can adopt, put them in airplanes and fly them. We better start doing it like any other sport where they can watch the Super Bowl, they can watch the World Series, they can get inspired but then they can do Little League in their home town.
So, I gotta do localized games. So, we started doing regional events each weekend in March. By our tenth year, I had something like ten regionals. So, two every weekend, between New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Texas. Well, by our fifteenth year, we had something like five every weekend. This is the 2019 March Madness. Each line is one of the cities somewhere in the world doing a FIRST event. This is the 173 cities that held events for 72,000 teams that ended this week with the championship in Houston for only half of those winning teams, about 700 teams from around the country are here, because that’s all we could hold. Next weekend, in Detroit, at Ford Stadium, we’re going to have the other 700 winning teams. Together, it will be close to 100,000 participants.
Russ: You must be real pleased with how you’re changing the culture.
Dean: I’m not pleased yet. I’m frustrated.
Dean: Because right now, now that we know that it works, we know that every school that has a FIRST team, the kids, particularly the women and minorities change their attitude, they change what they focus on. Now that we know it works, it’s almost criminal that we don’t have it in every school. To a company, or a country, a couple of years doesn’t matter that much. But remember, an entire generation of high school, a whole generation of high school – that’s four years – if we take another four years to double, we’re going to let 80% of the high school students in the United States never have access to this opportunity. That’s outrageous. The country needs way more world class scientists, engineers, inventors, problem solvers than it has right now.
Russ: I can’t disagree at all. It’s hard to imagine you could have gone any faster. I have to hand it to you. This city has had a history of robots in general. The NASA guys down the road, you might even know Rob Ambrose, the Valkyrie guy down there.
Dean: By the way, just for clarity, Houston is a hub for FIRST. You should know that around 15 years ago when we did a huge, when we had only one championship event, not two, we did it in the Houston Astrodome. Your then Governor was Rick Perry. He came to that event, he saw what we were doing, and he said, “Dean, I want to help you put this in every school in my state.” He was a very, very aggressive supporter back then. Now that he’s the Secretary of Energy of the United States, he let me know, “Hey Dean, do you know that the Department of Energy is the largest single employer of scientists and engineers in the entire federal government? In fact, the 17 labs, national labs run by the DOE, employ more scientists and engineers than the rest of the federal government combined, including the Department of Defense, and the National Institute of Health, and the National Science Foundation, and NASA.” So, by the way, the last year, NASA alone was supporting well over 250 teams. Well over 250. So, we have lots of reasons to love Houston. Tomorrow, the current administrator of NASA will be here for the day to see how things are going. We love NASA, we love Texas, we love Houston, and we’re going to have our championship here again next year.
Russ: Fantastic. I just love to hear that. It’s so exciting, top to bottom. So, I had the opportunity to interview you three years ago in this building, but it was a medical conference. You seemed then, and I think still now today, just as passionate about solving health problems, helping disabled people with your innovation as well, correct?
Dean: Everything we’ve talked about FIRST, that’s a passion. That’s a 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit coalition. It now has about 3,700 corporate sponsors. It has 200,000 volunteer mentors working with these kids. They’re all volunteers. It only has a staff of about 200 people. That’s all my nights and weekends. My day job, I have now over 700 engineers and we primarily design and build medical equipment for some of the most critical needs: dialysis, diabetes, stents, prosthetic devices, artificial organs. And recently, the United States Department of Defense asked us to set up an institute that would help bring all the engineering disciplines together to help take the magic that’s going on in research labs, in petri dishes, in roller bottles at med schools, like some of the biggest med schools in the country that are right here in Texas.
They said, “Dean, they do great medical research. They have miracles in these petri dishes. How do we get them to scale? There’s 400,000 people on waiting lists for organs. Why don’t you build an organization that will allow us to expedite the process of building an industry that will manufacture replacement human organs?” We are in the process of doing that. I have now over 130 companies and medical schools as members of that not-for-profit coalition. Many of them from Texas. We anticipate over the next couple of years delivering to the DoD, obviously working with NIH and the FDA, some potential milestones that will move us closer to being able to give people replacement human organs.
Russ: Oh, my goodness. Unbelievable. I remember at the last interview, as I think many people that know who you are, was even confused about the Segway. My version I think was that you invented the Segway and you said, man, I can turn that into a standup wheelchair. In reality, it was the other way around.
Dean: I spent five years understanding human balance. Since my whole life is medical equipment, after doing lots of the other things we talked about, insulin pumps for diabetic people, I realized that the disabled community is not being well-served with the wheelchair. They don’t have real access. They can’t go up a stair. They can’t even go up a curb. And they can’t look their peers in the eye. It’s not about mobility, it’s about dignity. I said, “Let’s figure out how humans stand up and balance. Let’s put gyros and accelerometers and servo motors and computers together and let’s give them back what they really lost when they could no longer walk. We will give them balance, and access, and independence and dignity.” It took a lot of years to do that. Once we figured out how to do it, we said, “If we take away the hard parts; the clusters that go upstairs, the seating system for the disabled; but we use the same sensors and the same gyros and the same software to do the controls, we could put a little platform on this thing and the rest of the population can enjoy it.” Everything I had been doing until then was medical, and even the Segway itself was the result of a medical thing. But forever I’m known as the Segway guy. That’s just the way life is.
Russ: I’m just going to encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing, please, and come back to Houston often. We love you holding this competition here and love what you’re doing.
Dean: We love Houston and we will be back. Thank you.
Russ: Thanks a lot, Dean. And that wraps up my discussion with Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST. And this is HXTV.
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