Dean Kamen's name - and his list of patents - are almost legendary among today's inventors and entrepreneurs. But the general public may know him best as the creator of the Segway Personal Transporter. Designed for a single, upright driver, the two-wheeled, self-balancing electric device can move across almost any level surface.
When it was introduced in 2001, some predicted the Segway would revolutionize how people get around. That hasn't quite happened. Yet Kamen continues to invent devices, mostly for the health care field.
"Actually," says Kamen, "the Segway grew out of one of those devices."
Ten years in development, it was called the "iBot," and its purpose was to revolutionize the way the disabled get around. The iBot looked like a very sophisticated wheelchair, but in contrast to traditional wheelchairs, it enabled people to be at eye level with their non-disabled peers and to climb steps and street curbs.
"In order to do those things," says Kamen, "we needed to figure out how to restore [synthesize] human balance."
After 10 years in development, the iBot was brought to market in 2003.
Innovator gets an early start
Kamen's career as an inventor began when he was only 5 years old, when he devised a system of knobs and pulleys that would straighten the sheets and blankets on his bed each morning automatically.
In high school, Kamen devised a groundbreaking audio-visual system that he eventually sold to planetariums worldwide. After a stint in college, he teamed up with his brother - a medical student at the time - to develop the world's first automatic syringe for premature infants.
"But soon we found we could build these little pumps, and instead of [just] putting them on these babies, we could [also] put them on the belt of a full-grown adult and deliver insulin to diabetics, which became a very large opportunity for my little company."
Kamen eventually moved out of his basement laboratory at his parents' Long Island, New York home and sold that business to a large pharmaceutical company in order to move on to invent new devices for the health and medical fields.
Health care inventions help people lead fuller lives
One important innovation by Kamen's company, DEKA Research and Development, was a kidney dialysis machine patients could use at home. Until Kamen's "Homechoice PD" was introduced in 1995, most people suffering from kidney disease had to be in the hospital several times a week to flush out the accumulated toxins in their bodies.
Recently, Kamen and his team of engineers also created the so-called "DEKA Arm." It is a bionic, or electro-mechanical, arm capable of movements so precise it allows upper-arm amputees to grasp small objects. The arm is also powerful enough to lift objects weighing up to 18 kilograms. The DEKA Arm is now in being clinically tested.
"One of the great things about working on medical products is you can 'do good while you are doing well.' It's a good business, and somehow at the end of the day, when you are going to bed tired because you have really tough problems… you go to bed completely happy, because you are going to be giving health and life to people."
Device could bring clean drinking water to millions
One essential ingredient for health and life is clean water. Yet around the world, lack of access to clean drinking water puts the lives and well-being of millions of people at risk. So Kamen and his engineers designed a small, portable water purification machine that could be brought to any village or urban slum in the world. It's a simple device with two hoses in it.
"You stick one hose into anything that looks wet, no matter what's wrong with the water," says Kamen, "and out the other hose comes out absolutely pure water. The device can make a thousand liters of water a day, while using less total electric input than a handheld hair dryer.
"Now we have to figure out how to get these boxes put all over the world."
Inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs
Kamen says his most gratifying invention to date isn't a machine, but an educational foundation called FIRST, which is an acronym meaning "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology." Kamen explains that the organization is devoted to bringing hands-on science and engineering education to young people who may be more interested in basketball and pop stars than the next great life-saving device or renewable-energy source.
The foundation's main activity is a competition for high school students that Kamen calls a "varsity sport of the mind." To participate, student team are given a bag of assorted parts and told build a robot that can perform a certain task of Kamen's choosing. At the premier FIRST Robotics Championship in 1992, 28 high school teams competed in a gym. In 2009, nearly 1,700 teams and their mentors competed at the 72-thousand seat Georgia Dome stadium.
"I started FIRST because I believe that if you can show kids just a little bit that science and technology is accessible, it is rewarding, it is fun, by putting them in a venue where it is presented as entertainment, they'll never go back."
Instead, he hopes, "they will start a serious life of starting to think about science and technology, studying math and physics, and they'll become the next generation of great innovators."
Today, Dean Kamen is a wealthy man with two large houses, two helicopters, a private jet, and millions of dollars in the bank. But Kamen measures his true wealth by how much he's been able to help others.
"I hope," Kamen says, "that someday people will say of me, 'He put back more into the world than he took out, and he took out a lot!'"