Recognize Me?

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, June 29, 2006

Mention the Segway, and you're more likely to recognize the famous people who have ridden it than the man who invented it.

The two-wheeled motorized scooter is only one of the many inventions Dean Kamen has brought to the world. He was the mind behind the wheelchair that climbs stairs, a home dialysis kit that sold more than 100 million units and devices that millions of people use to inject life-saving medicines. His work has even earned him a National Medal of Technology from the president.

But in a celebrity-obsessed society, it's not always substantive achievements that get attention. Kamen had a brief moment in the limelight with the eye-catching Segway. But like many of the other tech celebrities who had their moments of fame during the dot-com years, Kamen seemed to fade away when his innovation failed to catch on.

There are some techies, of course, who have maintained celebrity status over time. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are obvious ones. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are on their way. Could YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen be the next techies on the cover of the celebrity tabloids?

I jumped at the chance to interview Kamen, not only because the Segway is such a curiosity, but also because the 55-year-old entrepreneur holds such strong opinions on how to nurture innovation.

I listened to him bemoan how young Americans lack larger-than-life idols in science and technology to lure them into technical careers. "Part of the problem," he said, "is we don't have a way to put a face on technology so kids can relate to it, because technology typically involves teams more than personalities."

Kamen has long lamented how society treats our men and women of science. And like many business leaders, he worries that American culture is steadily eroding the premium it once placed on innovation in favor of the cultural icons who romp through Hollywood and sports arenas.

Kamen made me wonder how many Americans could name the technology legends living among us, people whose inventions have changed our lives. Quick, tell me who invented the World Wide Web. Without checking Google, which the Web inventor made possible, I doubt most of you could name Tim Berners-Lee, the man whose point-and-click information-sharing system is still having an explosive impact on modern life.

How about the inventor of the Internet, that network of computer networks that undergirds the Web and predated it? Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn get credit for devising the protocols, or data-transmission system, that let the Internet do its magic, but how many of you knew that?

Out of curiosity, I turned to the Web to look up past winners of the National Medal of Technology, an honor the president bestows annually on various people and teams. The roster includes Kamen, Berners-Lee, Cerf, Kahn, Jobs and Gates, yet it surprised me how few other names I recognized from the past two decades.

I dug down to see how newspapers cover these medals, along with the National Medal of Science, another prestigious honor the president bestows annually. Both draw skimpy coverage, typically buried inside the business sections of newspapers, in stark contrast to the high-profile publicity surrounding Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and their glittery cousins.

Even the techies who are responsible for the cutting-edge look of Hollywood movies are honored during a separate Academy Awards ceremony, one that's not televised.

Why is it important for techies to be well-known, recognizable names and faces? The future, Kamen argues.

The potential for the United States to lose its global edge in innovation, much debated in the halls of industry, is casting a scary shadow over our future, he said. "I think it's the biggest risk the country has."

In 1995, for example, 32 percent of college graduates earned degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. By 2004, it dropped to 27 percent, according to testimony presented on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

Yet, unlike many entrepreneurs I interview, Kamen tries to do something about it. Way ahead of the crowd, he founded a nonprofit robotics competition in 1989 to encourage passion for science in young people. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), his annual six-week competition, has steadily grown in popularity, drawing more than 7,000 participating schools.

Kamen is a cult hero to youngsters in the robotics contest, yet it amazes me how pundits can't resist ridiculing him over his Segway Human Transporter. Segway Inc., the company Kamen founded but does not run, won't disclose sales figures beyond saying tens of thousands of units have sold. Its three models remain fairly expensive -- $4,000 to $5,500 apiece -- which may explain the lackluster sales.

Kamen remains unfazed. His latest mission may be his boldest -- trying to provide cheap electricity and clean water to developing nations. The 200-plus engineers at his privately held lab in Manchester, N.H., Deka Research and Development Corp., have devised a small electrical generator that runs off -- no lie -- cow dung. Deka also has prototyped a companion machine that cleans contaminated water, including sewage. Kamen is negotiating deals for mass production of both.

Asked to name his favorite invention, Kamen laughed and insisted, "They're all my children." Yet he sounded most passionate talking about Segway's "granddaddy," the iBot, a motorized wheelchair that climbs stairs and lets disabled people raise themselves to talk to others at eye level.

A third-generation iBot, produced and sold by a division of Johnson & Johnson, recently won the Food and Drug Administration's approval for sale.

As for his most important invention, Kamen said he wakes up every morning believing the best is yet to come.

Unquestionably, he said, the Web will affect future inventors by providing them with far more sources of innovation. Kamen is convinced that we are moving past the information era into a golden age of creativity, in which inventors should play a starring role.

"Knowledge is all available at your fingertips now," he said. "It is about taking all these things that are instantly available and synthesizing them into something new and different. That is called invention."

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail

© 2006 The Washington Post Company