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5 Lessons from Dean Kamen

Brian Buntz

May 6, 2015

7 Min Read
5 Lessons from Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen

Speaking from the Center Stage of BIOMEDevice Boston, Dean Kamen asked engineers to help inspire the younger generation to study science and technology.

The famed inventor had plenty to say in a keynote address at BIOMEDevice Boston.

Brian Buntz

At BIOMEDevice Boston on May 6, Segway inventor and veteran medical device inventor Dean Kamen had some words of wisdom for engineers--gained from his experience developing an array of products (ranging from the first insulin pump to a mind-controlled prosthetic arm) as well as his founding of a youth outreach organization known as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

Here are five themes Kamen touched on in his talk:

1. Reach Outside of Your Industry for Inspiration

If a group of medical device engineers is given the assignment to take an existing technology and make it more innovative, any improvements to its design are likely to be incremental. But if you bring in engineers from another discipline and give them a whole different set of tools, you can sometimes very quickly come up with "innovations that raise the bar dramatically," said Kamen.

Kamen pointed to DEKA Research and Development's work modifying the design of the original Palmaz-Schatz stent from Johnson & Johnson, which launched in the United States in 1994.

DEKA, which Kamen founded in 1982, was enlisted to develop the successor to the original Palmaz-Schatz stent design.

It turned out that doing so was no small feat. The group was asked to come up with a radically better device but was told that, like the predecessor device, Crown had to also be made of 316 stainless steel and laser cut on a mandrel. "It has to be way better; you just can't change anything," Kamen said.

When thinking of ways to improve the elastic deformation of stents, Kamen had the idea to reach out to engineers outside of the medical device industry. "I know people who worry about elastic deformation all of the time--people that build aircraft. Their industry has been doing that kind of thing for decades. You lose one of those bolts on a helicopter or plane, you ruin your whole day."

Kamen says that working with engineers from the aerospace field enabled the development of a new stent geometry that worked very well, ultimately leading to a product known as the "Crown." "This stent was designed by a bunch of motorheads," he said. "And it got approved by FDA very quickly."

2. Embrace Crazy-Sounding Ideas

Some of the best inventions sound outlandish at first. That was certainly the case when DARPA approached Kamen asking him to help come up with a prosthetic arm in 2006 that was more advanced than the hook on the stick we have been giving wounded soldiers since the Civil War. "It is outrageous that people who have given their arms were given these hooks," Kamen says.

Luke arm

The DEKA Luke arm offers fine motor control.

But the military's wish list for a prosthetic arm sounded equally outrageous: within two years, they wanted a mind-controlled prosthetic that enabled someone to feed themselves. The arm should have such fine motor control that patients can use the arm to pick up a grape and, without crushing it, put the grape in their mouth.

While this request would seem practically impossible to many, DEKA didn't waste any time working on concepts for the arm, which would later be known as the Luke arm. Within one year, they had a working prototype. By two years they had refined the design considerably. The new version "is twice as fast, has twice the power," Kamen said. The company ultimately obtained FDA approval for the device. Users of the device have enough dexterity to eat sushi with chopsticks and pick up an egg without cracking it.

3. Don't Lose Faith in the Power of Changing Lives

One of the main principles that guides Kamen is improving the lives of others. It is this maxim that has led him to be involved in the medical device field for decades, developing the first wearable infusion pump, the first home-based peritoneal dialysis machine, a stair-climbing wheelchair, the Luke prosthetic arm, and other inventions.

It is this principle, too, that led Kamen to develop the Slingshot portable water purification system. "The number one cause of disease and death isn't some exotic thing; the number one source of chronic disease is the fact that people are drinking toxic water," Kamen said.

The system that DEKA developed to combat this problem can take polluted water--including salt water or water polluted chemicals and dispense water so clean that it meats U.S. Pharmacopeia standards for injection.  

To work, it just needs a little electricity. "We developed a generator that will run on a pound of any kind of fuel. We ran it for 6 months off methane from a pit of cow dung," Kamen said.

This 2012 video touches on the history of Dean's work on medical technology and the development of the Slingshot water purifier.

4. If You Build It, They Will Come

When first developing the Slingshot system, Kamen was unsure how to get it to developing nations. "There are 206 countries in the world, and it is the 100 you haven't heard of with two billion people living in them that need clean water," he said.

Once the technology was mature, organizations started cropping up expressing interest in helping to get the technology to the people that need them.

"The chairman of Coca-Cola came to us and said: 'You know that black machine that makes the water? Can you make it red?'" DEKA redesigned it to match Coca-Cola's bright red branding color, and Coca-Cola has agreed to help try to get the Slingshot everywhere it is needed.

Bill Gates also came forward and expressed support in helping to get the Slingshot to the underprivileged.

An idea, well executed, goes from being indefensible to indispensable, Kamen said.

5. Be a Champion Engineering Role Models

The United States has played a role in inventing and helping to commercialize a wave of innovations ranging from the Wright Brother's airplane, to Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone, to Thomas Edison's inventions of everything from the incandescent light bulb to the movie camera.

But over the years, the United States began to lose interest in innovating. People began talking of a shortage of engineers graduating from U.S. colleges. "Everyone was convinced that we had an education crisis," Dean Kamen explained.

Kamen didn't buy it: "We have more schools, the world's great universities. People come here from around the world for an education. But I don't think we have an education crisis; we have a culture crisis," he said. "We figured out how to have the best quality of life and we got lazy. And the rest of the world decided to focus like laser beams on tech."

What are Americans giving their attention to? "They are focusing on NBA, NFL, or Hollywood. We get the best of sports and entertainment. But that is not going to secure our place in the world," he said.

So Kamen came up with the idea of creating an athletics-inspired science competition. Known as FIRST, the contest was launched in 1992 with 28 teams in a New Hampshire high-school gym. Most recently, the event has reached more than 400,000 children, won prominent university sponsors, support of presidents, and more than 125,000 mentors.

Kamen ended his talk with a challenge to the audience. "The community of the world has been improving the quality of life since we crawled out of the primordial ooze. But we get a C- when it comes to reaching out to our kids. Don't whine about the shortage of educated kids, do something about it."

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 6-7, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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