Friday, August 11, 2006

Dean Kamen at NI Week 2006 – Innovation Requires Leadership

This week National Instruments hosted its twelfth annual NI Week event featuring Dean Kamen founder of DEKA, the inventing company of the Segway and many other inventions. As a Kilby and Heinz award winner he has over 400 patents to his credit. His inventions include the iBot which is a wheel chair with additional features such as a gyroscope and electronics for maintaining balance and the ability to raise the seated user to the eye-level of those standing. He’s also working on other inventions such as the compressed air system for lifting a person to a great height such as sending a SWAT person to the top of a building.

Dean Kamen founded the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization which is a non-profit that organizes robotics competitions for children 9-14 years old which impacts over 80,000 kids. The Lego Mindstorms team partners with FIRST by acting as the “little league” since it fosters science and engineering education at primary education children. He asked former president, Bill Clinton to bring the winners of the FIRST competition to the White House which he did. He showed a picture of President George W Bush toppling over the top of a Segway and made the comment about how the Segway works; you just have to turn it on.

He’s currently working on a water purifier system for villages that don’t have clean water. There are 1.1B people in the world without clean water or electricity. Dean Kamen’s invention is a box the size of a washing machine that can purify any kind of water put into it. The prototypes have been field tested and he’s now trying to reduce the cost of each production machine to the $1000/unit level.

Dean Kamen will be featured on the ‘Iconoclasts’ series to be aired on the Sundance Channel starting October 26. The series highlights those who have made a significant impact in their field.

Dean is a big fan of LabVIEW. It’s rumored that Dean Kamen has a pinball machine in his house that is driven by LabVIEW.

In his keynote address at NI Week 2006, he spoke on the process of innovation. He disclaimed his speech by saying he couldn’t instruct the audience on how to be innovative, but could only share his experiences. It’s the unexpected differences that work that make innovations interesting.

His talk was entitled: “Innovations: Rude Realizations and Somewhat Serious Suggestions”. He started with a picture of what first appeared to be a chariot, but it contained a series of gears that acted as an analog computer which keeps a pointer pointed south which is why it’s called a South Pointing Chariot. It was invented by Chinese several centuries ago which they used to guide their way through the Gobi desert. If both wheels turn at the same rate, then it would maintain its pointer which showed their way through the desert. They also had invented a crude form of a compass, but for some reason they didn’t use it. His conclusion which he called Rude Reality #1 is “It isn’t the technology that matters, it’s the way people solve problems that matter.”

He went on to quote TS Eliot, “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” That was a great statement with plenty of visual references. He followed it by a slide that gave the cycle of innovation as follows:
1. Skeptical
2. Enthusiasm
3. Brass Band & Fireworks
4. Results Aren’t Visible
5. Existing business suffering
6. Is it worth it?
7. Start to see pay-offs
8. This is taking time
9. Maybe not a bad idea
10. It works.

So his first recommendation was “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I believe he drew this from Winston Churchill. He showed a conventional development schedule which showed a clean set of steps from design to test to integrate. But the reality is quite different. He quoted Albert Einstein who said “If we knew what it was we were doing it would not be called research, would it?”

He shifted gears and made the statement “Invent as a last resort. “ It’s risky and full of failures and there is so much great technology already available that one should make use of it first and invent as a last resort. He defined Invention as “The art of concealing your sources” which he lifted from Pablo Picasso’s statement, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” A real world example is the medical stent which was originally designed by helicopter rotor engineers who knew metallurgy in which they took concepts from their aerospace application and applied to a medical device.

My favorite part of the speech came when he said

“Projects require management,
Innovation requires leadership”

That may sound trite, people don’t like to give up things that sort of work in exchange for something that might work, but better.

He wrapped up the talk by promoting the FIRST program for which he actively seeks mentors and volunteers. Their annual competition has grown to such a size that each year they take over an Olympic stadium --- the Georgia dome for their competitions. If you want to volunteer check out this site.

Best regards,
Hall T.