More than 40 years and about 1,000 patents after selling his first company, AutoSyringe, to healthcare giant Baxter, Dean Kamen is still facing an accusation describing groundbreaking innovation. It’s been five years since his ARMI (Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute) organ manufacturing project divided critics.
The project caused a stir at the CNN-hosted Life Itself conference early last month. Kamen paints the picture that appears on a panel on TC Sessions: Robotics today:
Doris Taylor, who has moved here from where she spent more than a decade in Texas at the Texas Heart Institute, takes the podium with a trophy. Inside the cup is a miniature pediatric-scale beating heart made with induced pluripotent stem cells placed in a scaffold of a pre-existing organ. Within an hour of that presentation, Martine Rothblatt, the founder and president of United Therapeutics, is onstage and they roll out an almost surreal backstage, lit from the top of the box. A panel opens and what emerges from the top of this platform is a scaffold of a human lung, which has been printed, completely printed at the smallest scale a printer has ever used.
However, Kamen is the first to admit that the road to all success is paved with failure. The trick is to learn the right lesson.
“What I’ve learned from failures is to go back and decide that the fundamental goal was wrong – that’s why it failed, you passed, but no one needs this – or were the technology available and your system integration and application wrong. “In which case, you’ve learned enough now, go try again, use a different approach,” Kamen explains. “Get yourself up, try again, with a different approach. And it really doesn’t matter how many times you fall. If you fall five times but get up six times, it’s okay. And in the end, you only need an occasional win to keep your confidence up. And hopefully, to give you the tools to keep going, even though you will inevitably have failures, let the projects fail, don’t let the people fail.”
Here are some of the fundamentals Kamen has tried to bring in: FIRST the education program he co-founded in 1989, along with MIT professor Woodie Flowers. It is best known for the FIRST Robotics Competitions, which focus on competitive robotic constructs and other projects, bringing the teamwork and enthusiasm of sports to STEM education — subjects that would otherwise deter students they traditionally encounter in a more formal and sedate environment.
‘Kids don’t go to class unless they count 45 minutes between phonetics and spelling, one day a week. But they go to school for three hours every day to get better at football or get better at basketball. So I said, ‘Look, we’re not competing for the hearts and minds of kids with the science fair and the spelling bee, we’re competing with the things they invest all their time, energy and passion into. So let’s use that model – make it ambitious, make it after school. Don’t give them quizzes and tests, give them letters and trophies. Bring the school band and the mascots.”
Perhaps the hardest lesson of all, however, is to understand, accept, and even welcome the fact that advancements in technology and science mean that one day your best work will be overshadowed.
“You have to be more than prepared for it. You have to be sure that it will happen, and you have to celebrate. I celebrate it more when it’s me who found out the last thing I did, but when someone else can age it and when I get to a point where I need a better clinical solution than a dialysis machine or an insulin pump, when I get to a place with someone else’s technology to give me a new organ or a prosthetic limb or something, I must have a better quality of life, I will thank that person. And I hope I will return that favor by giving them something of value that we invented.”