Inventor Dean Kamen wants you at his robot competitions

Dean Kamen — the inventor of countless tech products, holder of 440 patents, and probably most famous for his creation of the Segway — is “scared shitless” about the lack of emphasis on science and technology in American society today. U.S. culture celebrates entertainment and sports and inspires kids to try to enter Hollywood or the NBA, lamented Kamen in a recent talk with me, but we need to inspire the development of skills to be an “innovator and solve complex problems, like water, food, disease, energy, the environment and healthcare.”

To combat this problem over two decades ago, Kamen created FIRST, a non-profit organization that holds robotics and technology competitions for K-12 grades. While I’ve never attended one, the competitions have been described as a place where “children construct and control robots in a series of competitive challenges, egged on by cheerleaders, screaming parents and the prospect of [millions of dollars of] scholarships.”

Dean Kamen on his Segway invention

Dean Kamen on his Segway invention in 2002.

The contests and events have grown dramatically over the years and in April the group will hold its annual championship in several buildings in St. Louis including a stadium that will hold over 70,000 people. Kamen, who lives on his own island a mile off the coast of Connecticut, told me that out of all his creations, FIRST is the ones he’s most proud of.

Can robot competitions really inspire kids en masse? Well, for a certain type of kid, there’s no doubt it can. A FIRST competition inspired 19-year-old Parker Owen to invent a low-cost prosthetic leg made from bicycle parts called the Cycle-Leg. The device is patented and supposedly turning a profit.

A FIRST robotic competition

A FIRST robotic competition

Successful science-focused heroes and celebrities can inspire kids too, whether that’s Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astronauts at NASA, Bill Nye the Science Guy, or even Kamen himself. And science is actually having a bit of a moment in American culture these days, from the Mars Rover landing to the discovery of the God particle.

But turning some of the much-needed hardcore science innovations into commercial products can actually be monumentally difficult, as Owen is no doubt discovering now. The Segway obviously wasn’t “bigger than the PC” and a variety of Kamen’s ideas either don’t make it to the commercial stage or are later retired or pulled. Kamen, through his DEKA Research group, works with corporate clients on developing tech innovations.

Dean Kamen with his lightbulb developed for FIRST with Google.

Dean Kamen with his lightbulb developed for FIRST with Google.

When I asked Kamen about updates on some of the world-changing products that he’s announced in recent years, he was unsurprisingly upbeat. There’s the Beacon 10, which is a stirling engine device that can be installed in a building, combined with solar panels and batteries, and produce electricity. A few years ago NRG Energy said it would commercialize the product potentially by the end of 2014.

Kamen said there are Beacon 10 units installed now and undergoing testing. “We’ve made something like 300 million watt hours of electricity,” with the Beacon 10’s, and “we’re building the next-generation now,” he said.

There is also the water purification Slingshot device, which the Coca-Cola Company was eager to partner on. “I spoke to Muhtar Kent [the CEO of Coca-Cola] on Sunday and were due to get together in a month or two. We continue to improve the product,” said Kamen.

Kamen's Slingshot water purification device.

Kamen’s Slingshot water purification device.

More recently Kamen seems to be going back to his roots and has new medical device tech in the works. At age 30 (now age 63) he sold his first medical device company, AutoSyringe, to Baxter International Corporation. Kamen told me that he recently had a couple of “huge projects” approved outside the U.S. around dialysis. And last year he received FDA approval for his prosthetic arm, so this year they can now start putting them on veterans.

I asked Kamen if he thinks Silicon Valley has under performed when it comes to funding his types of science innovations, which is something I’ve pondered extensively. Kleiner Perkins was an early investor in the Segway. Most kids who have an interest in technology go into the digital sector, because “the rewards for social media and all things digital are pretty high,” Kamen said. He wants kids need to recognize the world of tech is a lot broader than the social network phenomenon.

If there’s one thing that Kamen wants from you, it’s to attend one of his FIRST competitions. “Can you do a call to action?” he asked me a couple times. “I want people to get involved.”

For the inventor of some of the most interesting, provocative, and novel inventions of the last four decades? Sure.