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5 Questions With Dean Kamen

When Dean Kamen was an undergraduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, his older brother — a medical student at Harvard — talked about what a shame it was that outpatients had to come into the hospital to receive infusions of intravenous medicine. Wouldn’t it be better if there were some device that could administer precisely measured IV doses at home? Kamen saw his brother’s point, and in short order he invented the AutoSyringe — the first portable drug infusion pump in the world. He founded a company to manufacture the device, and several years later Kamen sold AutoSyringe Inc. for $30 million. His career as an inventor and entrepreneur had gotten off to a blazing-fast start.

Kamen didn’t rest on his laurels, though; right away he founded another company, DEKA Research and Development, which develops original inventions and provides research and development services for major corporate clients. Through DEKA Kamen invented the iBOT, a battery-powered, self-balancing, multi-terrain wheelchair. But the invention he’s most famous for is the Segway PT, a two-wheeled, battery-powered vehicle for individuals.

DEKA also makes the Slingshot, a water purifier specifically intended to be used in the developing world. It’s designed to generate its own electricity through combustion of anything that burns, to operate for five years without maintenance and to purify 1,000 liters of water per day — all while using less power than a hair dryer. The device has been successfully field-tested in Honduras and Ghana, and DEKA recently announced a partnership with Coca-Cola to bring the Slingshot to other parts of Latin America and Africa.

Kamen is coming to NC State as a keynote speaker in the Shelton Leadership Center’s 13th annual Shelton Leadership Forum, which will be held at the McKimmon Center on Friday, Nov. 21.

Students work on robot at FIRST championship. Photos by Adriana M. Groisman.
Students work on robot at FIRST championship. Photos by Adriana M. Groisman.

Several years after founding DEKA, Kamen also founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science and technology. Now he holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, and he is a recipient of the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement, and a Global Humanitarian Action Award from the United Nations. In addition, he has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering.

In an interview this week, Kamen talked about facing criticism, teaching leadership skills to kids and how leadership is like love.

Your talk at the Shelton Leadership Forum is titled “Entrepreneurial Decision Making.” What do you plan to talk about during your address?

One thing I want to talk about is something I’ve been involved in for 25 years now, and I always bring it up wherever I go: the FIRST organization. We’re trying to create the next generation of leaders in the fields of science and technology. FIRST pairs students from elementary school through high school with world-class high-tech companies and skilled mentors in a fun, aspirational sporting-type environment. They form teams and build robots in a competition that takes place over a short, intense season, about the length of a football season. At the end of the season they go to one of 60 regional championships. The winners at the regionals go to the national championship, which is held in a 76,000-seat arena under the arch in St. Louis.

The point is to show kids the power of science and technology, show them that it can be fun and help them develop some leadership skills as well.

How does a robotics competition help kids develop leadership skills?

They start the season with a very ill-defined project with no specific answer. The teams are very diverse, and there’s an equally diverse group of teachers, mentors and parents. In a very short time the kids have to self-organize and build a cohesive team that first becomes an inclusive group, especially for women and minorities, who typically are not well-represented in science and technology. Then they have to quickly learn to focus and become a coherent team all pulling in the same direction. All of that takes leadership. If they fail to do that, they will not have a competitive robot.

When I come to NC State I’m also going to talk about how we as a country need to demonstrate leadership in the world by using our advanced technology and strength and wealth as a tool, not a weapon. We need to help create a sustainable future in which 6 billion people — soon to be 8 or 9 billion people — can all learn to live and share together rather than fight and suffer together. I think it’s going to take leadership to change the international discourse from one in which there are winners and losers to one in which we all become winners.

How would you define leadership?

I think leadership is like love: Everyone wants it, everyone knows when they have it or when they see it, but no one knows how to define it. I can tell you what leadership isn’t. It isn’t a set of rules that you can memorize and recite and get an A-plus for reciting. Leadership involves a lot of intangible traits like vision, patience, courage, urgency — and these traits conflict with each other. Your patience conflicts with your urgency. You’ve got to be patient, but not too patient. It’s difficult.

If you could give one piece of advice to those seeking to increase their leadership potential, what would it be?

People who want to be leaders need to understand that they have to feel comfortable making decisions while knowing that they probably don’t have all the facts and that inevitably some of their decisions, with the benefit of hindsight, will prove to be demonstrably wrong. They have to be able to deal with that and move on.

How do you get to that point if you’re not already there?

There are some skill sets you can get from a textbook, but I think leadership is way more subtle and sophisticated than that. It’s the age-old paradigm: You get judgment from experience and experience from judgment. Throughout your life, you learn and you iterate; but if there’s some simple process, I haven’t found it. I think that’s why leaders are hard to come by. Most people don’t like dealing with uncertainty and criticism and knowing that history will be able to review your decisions and judge them. But the alternative is no leadership, and that’s a bad situation to be in.

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