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Dean Kamen Doesn't Rest


Posted in Research and Development by Chris Wiltz on May 30, 2014

Kamen will be the first to tell you he's a “dyed-in-the-wool capitalist.” But how does this gel with a man who's also been quoted saying he's never received a paycheck in his life?

“I just don't think capitalism is the answer to everything. It's not going to give free water to the poor. We need better models for that,” he says, referring to one of DEKA's other projects, a water purification system dubbed Slingshot.

DEKA's "Luke" prosthetic arm. 
For Kamen the worthwhile projects aren't necessarily the juiciest from a business or profit standpoint. “It takes 12 to 15 years to educate a kid, so FIRST is not likely to attract the business community or the venture capital community the way a new product might,” he says as an example.
 
Thinking this way means embracing a philosophy that looks at money as something needed to reach the real end goal–freedom. “Profit is about giving you the resources to be free to do what you want to do–to work on projects like water and power and give resources to FIRST and other programs that are not likely to be able to sustain themselves based on capitalism and the profit motive," he says.
 
It also means choosing projects carefully in a world where there's no shortage of big problems to tackle, particularity in the medical space. Technology, particularly in the consumer space, moves with incremental change. If you want to sell more smartphones, cars, or personal computers, often all you need are a few new bells and whistles. Aesthetic changes and marginal improvements have kept more than one company's products stocking store shelves.
 
But incremental change won't drive medtech forward, Kamen says the technologies DEKA develops need to be the kind that will affect real change and disruption. “By process of elimination I think what we do most is avoid getting involved in incremental changes to existing technologies or working on some consumer product that maybe you could make some money with, but who cares in the end,” he says. “The threshold for us is we will work on a project if there is a really big need, if it'll improve quality of life for people, and if we can succeed in raising the bar.
 
“If we can come up with a different approach to a problem, and that approach requires engineering expertise that we think exists inside DEKA, and there's a reasonable chance that we can make a major breakthrough, we'll try it. Water, power, prosthetic devices, artificial organs, drug delivery systems, we work on them because if we succeed they make a big difference.”
 
He sounds rueful when talking about receiving a lifetime achievement award at this stage in his career. "I like to think I'm just getting going, doing more, and working harder all the time,” he says. “I hope [the MDEA Lifetime Achievement Award] does not turn out to be the pinnacle of the work being done by anybody here at DEKA. I hope it just incentivizes us to do more and better work in the future."
 
So what medical technologies get Kamen most excited right now? “I think right now it's a lot about sensor technology because computation has become virtually free. You can get incredibly high performance microprocessors that consume incredibly small amounts of power into very small packages that don’t cost much money. And similarly you can get gigabytes of memory on a small chip at a low cost.” Kamen believes that senors are the missing piece that will allow today's powerful processors to gather important, real-world data for effective outcomes. “There are a lot of base technologies being developed in sensors and in energy that are going to make medical products substantially more capable in the near future.
 
“I also think materials technology is moving pretty quickly in the medical space,” he continues. “It's allowing more tools to address problems, whether they are implantable, drug compatibility, biocompatibility, or weight and structure.”
 
Dean Kamen will be awarded a Lifetime Achievement award at the 2014 MDEA Awards as part of MD&M East, June 11, 2014
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