Dean Kamen is an inventor, an entrepreneur and a tireless advocate for science and technology. His roles as inventor and advocate are intertwined—his own passion for technology and its practical uses has driven his personal determination to spread the word about technology’s virtues and by so doing to change the American culture.
As an inventor, Dean holds more than 150 U.S. and foreign patents, many of them for innovative medical devices that have expanded the frontiers of health care worldwide. His latest invention, the Independence 3000 iBOT Transporter, or simply iBOT, is a personal transporter that was developed for the disability community. It can climb stairs, traverse sandy and rocky terrain and raise its user to eye-level with a standing person.
Another Kamen invention, the Segway Human Transporter (a self-balancing, electric-powered transportation machine), came about during the development of the iBOT. The Segway will allow people to go farther, move more quickly, and increase the amount they can carry anywhere they currently walk.
ABILITY’s Senior Health Editor Dr. Larry Goldstein and Chet Cooper spoke with the inventor when he was in San Francisco accepting the Lemelson-MIT prize. Kamen was recognized for his tireless efforts both practicing and promoting inventiveness.
Chet Cooper: Let’s talk about the iBOT. Was it your idea initially?
Dean Kamen: Yes. Most of the projects I’ve worked on in my life are medical products. Sometimes, a client will ask if we can work on a product for a particular need…and we do. If we are lucky and it works, we get royalties from those projects. We always take some of that money in-house to work on our own projects. If we work on a new idea and it looks like it’s promising, we then go out to our client base and say, “Well, here’s one that might be something you’ve never thought about. It might have seemed too risky, but we’ve done some preliminary work and we think we can do this. Would you put your marketing resources behind this now that we have proven it technically feasible?” Sometimes we convince clients to do that. Well, we didn’t have any clients that were involved in mobility or any kind of disability issues. But, I really believed that a wheelchair was an inadequate solution to mobility problems. When you get to know a few people that use wheelchairs, you notice how uncomfortable you become when you get to a curb and they can’t go where they want to go. When you have to look down at a person…I mean, we’re sitting here talking, but if one of us were standing, the other one would stand because you don’t want to feel that way. But, someone in a wheelchair can’t stand. So, I said, “What if we could make a product that would eliminate a lot of the obstacles and frustrations that people who use wheelchairs are always running into? What if—in the process—we could also let people be at eye level with their colleagues?”
We wanted to make a product that provides some of those uniquely human characteristics that many used to have if they are in a wheelchair as a result of a disease or accident. They can be light on their feet. They can be balanced. They can be at eye level. If you start thinking about how to do that, you quickly recognize that the only way to do it is with a machine, a balancing machine. People have a very small footprint. They don’t have a great big base like a typical machine does or a wheelchair does. The reason that you have to be lower in a wheelchair is your stability—a function of the ratio of how high your center of mass is and how big your wheel-base is. If you are depending on a static or stable machine, every time you raise the center a little bit, you have to make the base really big. Then, it becomes clumsy to get around and you certainly can’t deal with stairs because a stair is only eleven inches long and you are on a machine with a 4’ wheel-base. So, after thinking about it we said, “Alright, let’s go build a device that balances like a human. We’ll give people back all of the mobility and capability and dignity associated with being up in the air, with having a small footprint, and with being able to go everywhere when you want to go there.” We decided that we’d do it. We started out and spent a couple of years working on it. It was one of those projects that more than once I almost said, “You know, there’s just not enough technology out there to really safely and reliably do this.” But, we couldn’t give up. Then, we got to where we had some insights like putting the cluster on it, so we could deal with stairs the way people do—just literally stepping up stairs. We realized that once we had the clusters, we could put them down and give people this enhanced mode to go on the beach and to go through the woods.
Although it was taking us longer than we had planned, we realized that we had more exciting capabilities than we originally even hoped for. So, we just kept plugging away and once we knew it could do all those things, we called Johnson & Johnson. They are the largest medical products company in the world. I called them and said, “I know you are not in the mobility business, but I can’t find any really big company in this business.” The companies that are in the business (like wheelchair companies) don’t have the resources to do this kind of thing. If I invented the first computer, I wouldn’t go to an adding machine company to make it because they only know about springs and wheels and levers to make adding machines. Which is why when the computer industry took over the world of computing and electronic text and all that, it wasn’t the Underwoods and the adding machine companies that did it. It was Texas Instruments and the Intels. So, I went to Johnson & Johnson and told them that this is probably going to be the world’s most sophisticated high production robot. It’s full of sensors, gyroscopes, computers, and redundant systems. I probably should take it to a company that is a cross between NASA and Boeing—companies that make high reliability auto-pilots. But, those people don’t know how to get to people with disabilities and give them the service they need. And I can’t take it to a wheelchair company where they don’t have the resources or technology to do this. So, I told Johnson & Johnson that they need to help me and they sent some senior people to visit. They looked at this thing and said, “You’re right, this is not a wheelchair, but there’s a lot of issues. We have to get this out to a population which is hard to get to and there will be a lot of skeptics. And frankly, if we can’t convince the food and drug administration and the federal government that this is not a wheelchair it’s going to be something that people won’t be able to afford.” And I said, “You know, why don’t we work at it? Why don’t we demonstrate that the capability it will give people adds so much value?” They said, “Okay. Let’s try.”
We all thought it would be three or four years, but it has been the most difficult and sometimes frustrating project I’ve ever done. It wasn’t from lack of effort and it wasn’t from lack of support. Johnson & Johnson has been just golden. You can’t ask a big company to be more a patient or pour more money into a project. It’s because they believe in it and they believe that people need it. You can’t blame the delays on the FDA or the Feds because we haven’t even been able to submit it to them yet. They’ve always said to us that they would give it an expedited review because it is important. The delays are because this is a phenomenally difficult project and we have to make sure we get it right the first time. If you put a person with a disability in a machine like this, it better never do anything surprising. When your grandmother is on a flight of stairs, it is not a good time to reboot. So, we went through the most grueling, brutal set of system tests you could imagine; destructive testing of components, beating the hell out of the parts and systems. Every time we found something that could conceivably go wrong we went back a re-designed it. So, we’ve been at it and at it and at it—but what keeps us going is watching a person with a disability try it out. They get up and they smile and there they are standing 6’ high going up a flight of stairs or going through the woods or going out on the beach—it’s unbelievable, so we just keep going.
CC: Any thoughts on how long it will be?
DK: We are now, finally, almost done with the clinical trials. We have a few left. Everybody that’s been on the test loves it. If things go well, we really believe that—especially if the FDA is as enthusiastic as they have been—by the end of this year the product will be available. Certainly, within a year from now.
CC: I talked to some people at Johnson & Johnson and they are really excited. They said that they are anxious to get it to market.
DK: I know. It is the good and the bad. They are so big and they are so responsive. This is Johnson & Johnson. Some little company would say, “Hey, what they heck? We just gotta sell this thing!” Johnson & Johnson will never do that. So, the good news is they have the resources to do it right. The bad news is they have the resources to do it right. (laughs) Nothing is going to push them. I like that. But, while I like it, it is frustrating.
CC: Do you still have ownership of the iBOT? How does that actually work?
DK: We designed the technology and then we went to Johnson & Johnson and said, “We don’t have the resources to develop it and put it in production, to do sales, to do service, to do whatever it takes for a huge population that is spread all over the world. Can you help us?” They said that they wanted to do the project and the deal was very simple. We would be responsible for the design and development, but they have the worldwide exclusive right to this product for the medical field. It’s a Johnson & Johnson product. They have the license. It has always been our responsibility to do the design and development. It has always been their responsibility to take care of everything related to getting it into the hands of people. It was never different than that.
Dr. Larry Goldstein: Is there any fear that Johnson & Johnson could take the idea and use it for other products?
DK: No. For one thing, they are one of the most respected companies in the world. They are a medical products company. What are they going to do? Anything else they would want to do with it, any other medical application, we would be thrilled to help them. I hope they want to do that. So, there is no issue there.
CC: Have you had anybody that is blind try it?
DK: No. But we have had a number of people ask us and it has started me thinking, “God could we do some neat things.” Maybe we could put sensors on it. It would be awesome to do that. We haven’t done it yet, but we really need to think about it.
CC: How about a guide dog? During the demonstration, the engineer kind of pushed it and caused it to stop and back up. Guide dogs can do certain things like that for their owners.
DK: That would be very interesting.
CC: Let’s talk about the Segway. What happens when you go over a curb with the Segway?
DK: If you go down a curb, nothing. If you were going up a curb and you didn’t see the obstacle, it would tip forward and sort of pop up. You wouldn’t want to do it. It is not made to do that. You would never want a person with a disability to use it and assume that if they hit a curb they would just go up it. Clearly this device is not made to go up and down curbs.
LG: Do you need any special permission to take the Segway into public places like a hotel?
DK: Yes. Well, theoretically we do until we get legal status as a pedestrian which we’re working on very diligently. There are 18 states that have already given it to us. Which is a big deal.
LG: So, you could take it into parks?
DK: Oh yeah. Cars are legal, but if you drove it onto your neighbor’s lawn and left the radio blaring at 2 in the morning, you are still a nuisance and can get in trouble. So, I think if you went screaming around the lobby of a hotel on the Segway and you run into widows and orphans, you are gonna be in trouble. If we get the legal right to be a pedestrian, we’ll be giving a lot of access to a lot of people.
CC: So, you need to do this with all fifty states.
DK: Yeah and we’re a little company. And that’s hard to do. We’ve been having good luck. We’ve had remarkable success. You tell people the truth. A lot of people are cynical. A lot of people are skeptical. But, you walk in and say, “This is what I got. This is what I think it can do. This is why I think it’s a good idea. If there is something I’m missing tell me. If not, help.” And people help! They do. It’s a good thing.
CC: I’m sure you are seeing applications of this internationally.
DK: More so than the U.S. I think the rest of the world, like in Europe, is more congested. Fuel costs more money. People are more used to having walkable cities. They’ve lost them more recently. So, they are ready. In the developing world, in Asia, people can’t afford cars. For lots of reasons, the rest of the world is potentially a larger and more receptive opportunity.
CC: At this point, what is the life of the charge in the Segway?
DK: We have two different kinds of batteries, nickel and nickel metal hydride. The nickel metal hydride (which is the more expensive, longer range system) can go between 10 and 15 miles on a charge. You plug it in for an hour or two and you’re off again.
CC: And the speed?
DK: 8 miles an hour continuous. And it will accelerate up to 10 or 12 miles per hour.
CC: I heard about a turbo model? Do you have something like that?
DK: Not that I know of. (laughs) I don’t think so. But we saw something in the paper that said 23 miles an hour, we saw one last week that said 40 miles an hour.
CC: Okay, we’re going to say 60. (laughs)
DK: (laughs) Go right ahead, as long as you don’t quote me.
LG: What about downhill?
DK: Down the steepest hill or up the steepest hill it has exactly the same speed because it’s all controlled. The top speed is the same going uphill and downhill.
CC: When you are trying to get approval for the pedestrian status from the states, do you become a lobbyist?
DK: I would say it is lobbying…although when I first heard about it I thought lobbying was some kind of insidious backroom thing. But, lobbying just means that you go and ask for support. I have personally taken it to legislators and regulators. As I said, we have had much encouragement. People ask some tough questions, but the are realistic. We were asked questions like, “What if the power goes out?” Once I was asked, “What if you are going full speed and run into somebody?” My answer was, “You might get hurt and they might get hurt, but unlike a car or bus or train, you are as likely to get hurt as the person you are hitting. So, you are going to pay attention.” What happens when you are running down the sidewalk and you run into a little kid? One of you is going to get hurt. I’m not here to tell you that you can’t abuse technology. I’m not telling you that this thing replaces your judgement. It replaces your inner ear. The rest of brain is still up to you. If somebody in a wheelchair ran into somebody, they are going to get hurt. Downhill in a wheelchair is fast. But, you can’t go any faster going down Lombard Street [a steep street in San Francisco] in this thing than you can in a lobby. You can’t do it.