August 2 2009
by Todd Hixon

Boston Innovation Culture — 2: Dean Kamen Speaks Out

In my last post I argued that Boston needs a stronger innovation and equity culture.  Heroes and icons are a great source of that culture.  Silicon Valley has a no shortage of icons (even if a few are a bit larger than life), eg:

  • Noyce, Moore, Grove, Kleiner from the Silicon era
  • Jobs, Joy, Clark, Ellison, Doerr, Tim Draper, Metcalfe from the computer era, some still very much in the saddle
  • Omidyar, Page, Brin, Andreeson, Yang (and counting) from the Internet era

Boston has a comparative shortage of heroes and icons, although we did succeed in stealing Bob Metcalfe from Silicon Valley.

But we have Dean Kamen, a serial inventor and entrepreneur, and a strong personality, with a great ability to inform, and inspire, enjoyably.

In that spirit, I offer a few notes from Dean’s talk at the June, 2009 Xsite conference.

  • The future of the country is innovation to create real wealth.  Someone has to pay for the few trillion dollars we just put out there.
  • Cross-fertilization:  You need to look outside your field, find someone who knows nothing about your problem, and there is a finite chance of getting something dramatically better.  [Or, as Tim Draper puts it, you need to find someone who just doesn’t know it can’t be done.]
  • We built a bedside dialysis machine that you can operate wearing dark glasses and hockey gloves.  Took more time to get it through FDA and med profession than to develop.  Now the standard of care; 150m therapies shipped WW.
  • If you have 19th century people looking at 21st century problems, and they are in control, innovation has some insidious enemies.  (As he said this, Dean segued to a picture of W falling off a Segway, because he forgot to turn it on.)
  • You’d better get used to failing, it’s part of the deal.  Every day you discover that the problems you knew about are worse than you thought, and there are new ones you didn’t know about.
  • Water from our deployable water purifier makes the Desani around here look like toxic waste.
  • I’m an innovator, so we’re nuts … until we’re right … and then it’s obvious.
  • Albert Einstein:  “The difference between genius and stupidity … is that genius has its limits.”
  • The problem with education is demand, not supply.  Our culture is obsessed with preventing kids from demanding to learn science and technology.  All those kids are competing for the four jobs created every year in the NBA.  This is a free culture.  You get what you celebrate.  If the only voice they hear is Hollywood and the NBA, the next generation in this country is gonna be very good at bouncing balls.  “Education is not filling the pail … It’s lighting a fire.” — Yeats.
  • Robotics [the First Competition, of which Dean is a major promoter and sponsor] is the only high school sport in which every kid on every team actually can turn pro. 

Thanks, Dean. I hope someday to assemble such a great set of pithy truths.

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