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REVOLT: The Segway-maker’s next move

Never mind the new deal with GM. Dean Kamen reaches back to an 1800s combustion engine to fire up automotive’s electric future.

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The office features a full-sized cutout of Darth Vader, photos of his helicopters and airplanes, a hard-backed chair painted with a likeness of Albert Einstein, and a wall plaque that reads: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. – Einstein.”

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Two Segways and an iBOT sit in a corner. Outside in the brick-lined hallway hang a row of original 1950s comic book illustrations drawn by his father, Jack. Around the corner is a photo of Kamen meeting President George W. Bush in 2007. In the picture, Kamen, who holds 440 US and foreign patents, is wearing the same blue denim shirt and jeans that he wears every other day.

Kamen has become a multimillionaire doing his “day job” designing products for large companies. He can’t talk about that, he says, “because it’s confidential stuff.”

What he loves to talk about is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a student robotics competition he started nearly two decades ago. The initial competition was held in a high school gym in Manchester. This year’s finals, held April 16-18 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, attracted more than 10,000 student competitors from more than 25 countries. (A much larger number compete beforehand in regional qualifying tournaments.)

The theme this year is “Lunacy,” celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first humans to visit the moon. Student-built robots must collect balls (“moon rocks”) and deposit them in trailers hitched to opposing robots. The floor of the playing field is designed to be slippery, offering the robots only one-sixth the traction of a carpeted surface. That echoes the difference in the gravitational pull on the moon, which is one-sixth that on Earth.

The students work with mentors from companies like Boeing, Xerox, Johnson & Johnson, Motorola, and United Technologies.

“We’ve got to get all kids in this country prepared for the 21st century,” Kamen says. “There are a couple of million of technical jobs desperately waiting for people to fill them. There are a couple of dozen jobs [playing basketball] in the NBA. And yet, look how kids spend their time. Look at what they aspire to do.”

The American economy, he says, can roar back if the business community recommits to innovation.
Although there may be a fixed amount of natural resources on the planet, he says, “there’s not a fixed amount of ideas.”

“Innovation really happens in times of adversity,” he says. “Maybe there’s a silver lining to what’s going on in the world right now.” It has been easier to do financial engineering than real engineering. It has been easier to figure out how to move money around than to create it. “Maybe now we’ll get back to the basics,” he says.

Kamen himself is an example that an innovator never gives up. Great ideas can just be ahead of their time. His Segway, introduced in 2001, is more likely to be used for comic effect in a movie such as “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” than on American streets. Is that a disappointment? The jury is still out, he says.

His view was buttressed by an announcement in April that GM would team with Segway to make a two-wheeled electric vehicle based on the scooter.

“I don’t know if you’ll see lots of Segways or Segway-like things in 10 or 20 years,” he says. “But one thing I do know: There’s virtually no chance that 20 years from today the normal method of getting around a highly dense urban environment will be as stupid as it has been for the last 20 years. It’s unsustainable environmentally.

“Is a Segway an interesting option?” he asks. “If you’ve got a better one, let me know about it.”