Inventor Dean Kamen Aims to Grow Future Innovators

Inventor Dean Kamen has more on his mind than just evangelizing for science and technology with his wildly popular robotics competitions for students. His competitions have become incubators for training and recruiting geeks to become future scientists, engineers and innovators.

The success of the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) competitions has attracted a growing list of sponsors such as NASA, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Motorola and Boeing. That alone may demonstrate widespread recognition that the world needs its geeks more than ever to create innovative solutions for problems hanging over everyone's heads.

"'Bounce, bounce, throw' is a nice thing to get good at, but it's not going to change security, healthcare environmental issues, or quality of life," Kamen said.

Kamen's own inventions speak to his desire to move the world: a stair-climbing robotic chair, a prosthetic robot arm for wounded veterans, and medical devices such as a portable dialysis machine. Current projects include a water purifier for the more than 1 billion people without clean drinking water, and a Stirling engine that can burn just about anything for fuel and create less pollution.

Successful inventors with such ambition might be rare, but that has not stopped Kamen from trying to cultivate the talent and interest among young people. The FIRST competitions already reach more than 212,000 students in 56 countries, and yet Kamen hopes to eventually give every U.S. student a chance to be in FIRST.

"Not every kid wants to be a professional engineer, but they deserve the opportunity to get a taste of the world of science, engineering, technology and problem-solving," Kamen said. "It ought to be at least as accessible to every kid as any sport."

Homegrown talent

Being founder of FIRST has its advantages when it comes to recruiting the best and brightest. Kamen's own company, DEKA Research and Development, has hired many former FIRST participants. And many other corporate supporters of FIRST also find their future geek workforce at various FIRST events.

"I think in part why we have thousands of corporate sponsors is because they're desperate to have access to such great kids," Kamen told TechNewsDaily.

Kamen himself has met many a FIRST student, and corporate sponsors similarly send in their own representatives to help mentor and support student teams. That leaves an impression among young minds.

"When you get kids in high school and you support them and mentor them, and then they go off to engineering school because of FIRST, only a few years later they graduate and come back to these companies where they met scientists and engineers," Kamen explained.

Corporations aren't alone in recognizing the value of a FIRST training ground. NASA represents a lead sponsor of student teams, and the U.S. space agency's administrator, Charlie Bolden, also made an appearance as guest speaker at the FIRST LEGO League World Festival held last month in Atlanta, Ga.

"He personally promised me that he'd go back to Washington and work with all other federal agencies that have and need technology people, and get them as interested," Kamen said.

Kamen has also spoken with the Pentagon's DARPA agency, which issued a call in recent months for ideas to promote interest in science and technology among U.S. students. But it more typically funds wild ideas such as lightning-based GPS, flying cars, and Kamen's own robotic prosthetic arm.

Making it happen

Of course, getting beyond the idea stage in the innovation process still represents an iffy prospect. The so-called Luke arm created by DEKA has proven successful enough to enter trials with the U.S. Veterans Administration, but many of DARPA's projects, if not a majority, rarely achieve what they set out to do.

Kamen also acknowledged the difficulty of bringing a "good" idea to fruition as an actual commercial product, just as every FIRST participant who wants to become an engineer won't necessarily do so. Still, that has not stopped him from trying to give future innovators their best chance of making something happen.

"I think FIRST needs to make sure that we not only create awareness [among students], but also give them a path and show them a pipeline to real career options," Kamen said. "That's a realistic concern."

And it's not just the geeks who need encouragement. Kamen pointed out that even the best ideas and innovations often run into stubborn opposition from society as a whole, and especially when it comes to investing in a technology that would change business-as-usual for many.

"It's not a technical issue," Kamen said. "In the end, it comes down to where humanity places its priorities."

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.