First, Find a Big Problem, Then Solve It
It sounds like something out of science fiction: a manufacturing venture focused on high-volume human organ regeneration. But inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen is very serious about what he sees as the future of medicine.
In a talk at Tufts on February 22, Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corporation, described his plans to scale up the technology of regenerative medicine with his new firm, Advance Regenerative Manufacturing Institute. Critical to its success: engineers.
“I’m definitely looking for about—I don’t know—100 of you; I’ll take you back tonight,” he told a Tufts audience dominated by students who came to hear him deliver the School of Engineering Dean’s Lecture, part of the school’s Engineering Week activities.
“There is so much work that needs to be done at the intersection of engineering and medicine to create a whole industry and give people a place for organs, whether it’s your liver or your kidney or your lung,” he said. “We’re going to transform medicine if we can make all this work, but almost all the work to do it is engineering.”
Kamen’s quest to transform regenerative medicine builds on more than forty years of innovations. He founded DEKA Research and Development Corp., and has led the development of technologies for health and human mobility—including an insulin pump, a portable dialysis machine, the iBOT mobility device, and the Segway Personal Transporter—and in human health, including SlingShot, an energy-efficient machine that purifies dirty water, and a prosthetic arm controlled by muscle signals transmitted from the brain. He has been honored with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the Lemelson–MIT Prize and the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award from the Tech Museum of Innovation.
At Tufts he gave a brisk overview of the trajectory of his career, from tinkering in his parents’ basement to working at his sprawling corporate campus in nineteenth-century mill buildings in Manchester, New Hampshire. By talking about the “diversities of technology” that fuel his innovative thinking, he aimed “to show that if you find the right intersection of technology and the way to get it to people, you can turn science fair projects into things that improve the quality of life for people.”
Here are some of the many takeaways from Kamen’s lecture and from a conversation earlier in the day with Tufts Now.
Fame can be accidental (and ironic). Building the iBOT mobility device for disabled people gave Kamen the idea that instead of just making a device “for a small group of people that need it for mobility, let’s get the volume up and cost of materials down by making a version of this that everybody can use. But because suddenly it was more available, I’m forever known as the Segway guy—even though the Segway itself was a fun, weekend project.”
It’s about people, not business plans. His company made the iBOT mobility product not because it was in a business plan, Kamen said. “It was the fact that people who can’t walk want to look their peers in the eye, want to go up and down stairs, want something better than the 200-year-old architecture of an ordinary wheelchair. Why can’t we use engineering principles that are now pretty straightforward . . . [to] build [something] to give people not just mobility but dignity? And we’re doing it.”
First there’s research, then there’s engineering. “To me, research is where you spend a lot of time and money going down blind alleys—and you might even discover some fundamentals of science. Engineering is taking those understandings and using the tools of engineering to create a solution to a defined problem. What I try to do is stay abreast of that pipeline of research that can create the opportunity to develop products. For instance, we made an iBOT. You couldn’t have made that technology ten years before I made it—but it wasn’t because they didn’t have good engineers. It was because the research hadn’t brought us lithium battery technology. It hadn’t brought us solid-state gyros built on chips. We are system integrators; we will take the results of the research that has created capabilities, and then we’ll try to make a product.”
It’s all about problems that need solutions. “Every one of the problems we work on is a really big need that if not solved—and solved soon—the world will be sick or people will die. There has to be a core technology, and there has to be a need, and if we succeed, it will make a major difference. And we also pick problems that other people are not likely to solve soon. Show me a big issue that might be solved by a new or different technical approach—those are the problems I work on.”
Learning the lesson of David and Goliath. “To me the moral of the story about David and Goliath is that technology is cool. As a little kid I was always the shortest kid in my class. I was David—in fact my Hebrew name is David. I heard this story—this little guy who has a really big problem, Goliath. But he realizes something about angular kinetic energy—he realizes that if he spins up a stone and gets it to a very high speed and lets it go, and it hits the giant in the head, it’s going to kill him. The number-one cause of death of kids under age five worldwide is access to clean water. It’s the people in the little remote villages that are dealing with a Goliath of a problem. So I said, if we can give a small, distributed solution so that even in a small village you could put a little device that would make toxic water the stuff of life, I think that little machine represents the slingshot of the twenty-first century give.”
We’re at the epicenter of a new industrial revolution. The Millyard in Manchester, New Hampshire, was the largest single operating industrial complex in the United States before the textile industry was bypassed by superior technology. When Kamen moved to Manchester in the 1980s, every mill was empty; they are now all full and are poised to reemerge as the “Silicon Valley of regenerative medicine,” he said. The mills “are a fantastic legacy” and sit at the “epicenter” of enormous talent. “If you draw a line between Tufts and Dartmouth, and you draw another one from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, you get an X. We are right in the crosshairs. We are really centrally located, and we’d like to build this company quickly.”
Laura Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.