September/October 2010

ISA Automation Week

ISA Honorary Member award winner devotes life to improving the world

Dean Kamen

By Jim Strothman

EDITOR'S NOTE: ISA continues its tradition of honoring leaders throughout the automation industry by presenting the Automation Founders Circle awards. This year's recipients are Dean Kamen with the ISA Honorary Member award, the highest honor bestowed by the Society, and Gregory McMillan with ISA's 2010 Life Achievement Award.

founder1Since his childhood days, Dean Kamen, perhaps best known for inventing the Segway Human Transporter, has believed his lifetime here on Earth should be devoted to benefiting humanity and making the world a better place.

Kamen and his engineering team at DEKA Research & Development Corp. have significantly expanded medical technologies, saving or extending millions of lives. Meanwhile, they are hard at work developing "green" machines that could provide mini-electrical grids and water purification for billions of people worldwide in developing and impoverished lands lacking electricity or pure drinking water.

The accomplishment Kamen most likes to talk about, however, is an organization he founded in 1989 to motivate elementary and high school students to become future science and technology leaders.

Called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), its 2010/11 Robotics, Tech Challenge, and LEGO competitions this school year are projected to involve more than 250,000 students in 56 countries.

$12 million in scholarships

Supported by a network of more than 3,500 corporations, educational and professional institutions, and individuals, FIRST, this year, provided more than $12 million in college scholarships.

"All you've got to do to get kids interested in participating is to show them that science, technology, inventing, and engineering careers are much more accessible than the number of (celebrity) slots in Hollywood, or stars in the NBA (National Basketball Association) or NFL (National Football League)," Kamen said.

His many far-reaching achievements, particularly FIRST, resulted in ISA electing Kamen to be its 2010 ISA Honorary Member, the highest honor bestowed by the Society. The Honorary Member award recognizes "individuals whose support of, and/or contributions to, the advancement of the arts and sciences of instrumentation, systems, and automation are deserving of special recognition."

Dean Kamen

Kamen's citation reads: "In recognition of an extended career as an inventor, entrepreneur, and advocate for inspiring young people to pursue study in the fields of science, technology, and engineering."

Asked his reaction to receiving ISA's highest honor, Kamen said, "It's particularly nice to receive awards that are from your peers and who do things that are relevant to me."

"Dean Kamen is a very obvious choice as ISA's 2010 Honorary Member, based on his well-known career as an entrepreneur and inventor," said Bob Ives, chair of ISA's Honorary Member subcommittee. "His inventions all employ sensing devices, feedback loops, and automation to optimize their performance.

"Kamen founded and has been the driving force of FIRST, a program focused on encouraging and challenging young people to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering. ISA has been engaged in a similar initiative and has recently become a supporting member of FIRST," Ives said.

"Kamen provides ample evidence of advancing the art and science of instrumentation, systems, and automation and is most deserving of being recognized with the Society's highest honor," the subcommittee chair added.

Other awards and accolades Kamen has received include the Heinz Award in Technology, the 1998 Economy and Employment award, the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 2000, the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2002 for Invention and Innovation, the United Nations Association of the USA Global Humanitarian Action Award in 2006, the American Society of Manufacturing Engineers Medal in 2007, the 2008 LEGO Prize, and the 2009 Committee for Economic Development Public Policy Award. He has received honorary degrees from more than 25 colleges and universities and was inducted into The National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005.

Influenced by grandfather

As a child, Kamen was motivated to help humanity by his creative father, Jack Kamen, an illustrator for Mad magazine and Weird Science, and his grandfather. "That was part of my growing up-education and making the world a better place," the inventor said. "My grandfather used to tell me, 'Be sure, every day, you give back more than you take out.'

"My whole life I've worried about the fact that life is short," Kamen said. "If you are working hard, and being (sometimes) frustrated, you might as well do it for the good of society.

"It's a shame so many smart people in the world spend their time solving problems people don't really have," he continued. "They develop products that don't benefit society and the world. The medical world is one of the safe places for developing technology. If you make a good solution to a medical problem, you can be pretty sure it will be used and save lives."

Kamen's first medical innovation, developed while he was a college undergraduate, was an automatic, self-contained ambulatory pump that could deliver precise doses of medication to patents. He founded AutoSyringe, Inc., in 1976 to manufacture and market the pumps. At age 30, after he developed a number of other infusion devices including the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics, he sold that company to Baxter International Corp. and founded DEKA, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

DEKA unique

DEKA, headquartered in Manchester, N.H., "is a very unique environment," Kamen said. "We have 350 scientists and engineers. No marketing. No sales. No distribution. Our entire business is built on solving technical solutions and partnering with others. We partner with the best-in-class of companies."

Besides Segway-an electrical-powered, gyroscope-controlled scooter steered by its human passenger shifting weight-Kamen and DEKA are developing a broad range of products around four primary core technologies: fluid management, mobility, power, and water.

Asked which of his and DEKA's accomplishments he is most proud of, Kamen, holder of more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, laughed and said, "That's like asking which of your children you like the best. I like them all."

Most of DEKA's R&D work remains confidential until partners are identified and willing to discuss the technology, the inventor said. Breakthrough medical and other devices invented and developed by DEKA, which the company will discuss, include:

  • The HomeChoice portable dialysis machine. Marketed by Baxter Healthcare, it eliminates the need for renal patents to make frequent trips to a dialysis center by allowing treatments in their own homes.
  • The iBOT Mobility System. Developed for Johnson & Johnson, it enables disabled persons to navigate any terrain, including stairs, and to "stand" at eye level with people around them, rather than struggling in a restrictive wheelchair.
  • A DARPA-funded robotic arm, dubbed "Luke" after Luke Skywalker. Still in development, it is intended to restore functionality for military and other individuals with upper extremity amputations. Clinical trials with 18 patients have already begun, Kamen said.
  • An electricity generating Stirling engine, which can run on any fuel, including methane gas seeping from the earth. Kamen envisions it producing electrical "mini-grids," and serving as "methane vacuum sweepers" in African and other countries and islands where electricity does not now exist.
  • Water purification technology intended to convert almost any source water into safe drinking water. "It could bring clean, drinkable water to well over a billion people," Kamen said. The dorm-room, refrigerator-size device uses no chemicals. Rather, it distills water with reusable energy.

The Coca-Cola Company, which recently partnered with DEKA on next-generation fountain equipment, has expressed interest in the water machines. "Coca-Cola is in many countries, a major supporter of sports, and a good partner," the inventor said.

Kamen's ISA Honorary Member award will be officially presented during ISA Automation Week 2010, which begins 5 October in Houston, Tex. Kamen, who will be Automation Week's opening keynote speaker, is expected to focus on FIRST.