Steve Jobs is associated with the phrase to “put a dent in the universe” - creating the kind of impact that does not just come from making a new product, but changing the way we live.
Dean Kamen has created medical equipment to allow diabetics to live their lives without the fear of an insulin crash and those needing dialysis to do so at home while they sleep at night. As many as 200 million of his surgical irrigation pumps are in use. He has over 400 patents.
He is an inventor that dropped out of school when he built the means to deliver very controlled injections automatically called the AutoSyringe. He sold the company that built the syringe and founded his current one, DEKA, as a research and development firm to solve other bio-medical challenges. Today, he has 11 honorary doctorates.
DEKA is not a listed company. He is the sole owner with 400 staff (mostly engineers). He does have a business partner of many years, but it is a giant teddy bear (very supportive of anything he wants to do).
His house has an enormous steam engine in the middle and he has a helicopter that is kept in a hangar in his home (he often flies to work).
He fits the stereotype of eccentric inventor not just because he does not bother with various outfits (he wears denim shirts and chinos all the time) or because he has an interest and knowledge of a vast range of subjects, but also because he is willing to tackle some of humanity's greatest challenges.
Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them— Albert Einstein
He is not a big sports fan, but was disappointed that kids could name lots of athletes, but hardly any scientists and engineers. So he founded an NGO called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). It stages competitions featuring teams numbering 300 000 participants from around the world, including South Africa.
He is best known for the media storm that formed ahead of the launch of the Segway. A device that grew out of his invention of a wheelchair that can climb stairs and raise the user to eye-level with those that can stand hence its name, the iBot (during development it was called the Fred while the Segway was called Ginger, as in Astaire and Rogers, they do like their names). Toyota has recently said it will buy the licences for key elements of the device in order to kick start the manufacture of the device for those in need of one (production was stopped in 2009, much to users' and fans' disappointment).
The Segway was named as the device that came between walking and driving. He correctly predicted that large, heavy fuel burning cars would not be the solution to urban transport. So it is not the Segway either, but compact electric cars are far closer to his vision than anything else being considered in 2001.
Names are a thing it seems. The state of the art prosthetic arm is called the Luke arm because Luke Skywalker has a prosthetic limb in Star Wars. Current artificial arms can’t do much and many amputees stop using them. He allowed a man with no arms for 26 years to built a birdhouse in the shape of a ship.
Wooden birdhouse built by a man who lost his arms over 26 years ago and built with using Luke Arms. Credit: TedMed
He takes inspiration from a line by attributed to Albert Einstein that says “Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them”
Applying this, he wondered how he might prevent people losing limbs in the first place and created a version of the arm that could be remotely controlled on his wheelchair base to set explosive charges which was tested in a South African gold mine.
He most ambitious project - which, like many others, are ready for mass production but have not fully achieved it - relates to safe drinking water. The Slingshot (named for the weapon that allowed the biblical David to defeat Goliath) seeks to prevent what, according to him, accounts for 50% of the people in hospitals.
Waterborne disease and water containing toxins are a significant global issue in the developing world. The lack of safe water does not only mean productive time needs to be spent making it safe, but that those that get ill place a significant burden on the already strained medical services.
The solution came from the the dialysis machine that needed pure water for infusions. Having to keep the pure water in order to use the machine was a limitation so he designed a device to turn tap water into pure water. The system was so effective it can turn any liquid source of water into pure water without the need to replace parts often.
Because they are still low volume production they are expensive (R1.5 million each) and are hard to get delivered to the areas that need them.
A partnership with Coca-Cola resulted in DEKA building a more efficient Coke dispensing machine called the Freestyle in return for partnering in the distribution. Trials were set to take place it South Africa, but it appears the progress has stalled and the roll out suspended.
The story was highlighted in a 2014 documentary Slingshot that offers both an insight into this amazing thinker and the really big problems he tackles.
Dean Kamen has not married and has no children. However, history will show that there were few more willing to not simply find a solution to our problems but be so bold to find the means to prevent them. His work may not be denting the universe just yet but, as he says himself, the FIRST program’s quarter of a million potential engineers and scientists will very likely include those that do.