Inventor Dean Kamen at SXSW: Reigniting a Culture of Experimentation and Entrepreneurship

This week at SXSW 2012 at the Austin Convention Center, we had the chance to talk to inventor and innovator Dean Kamen.  Dean is a prolific inventor who has been compared to Edison for his contributions to humanity.  Perhaps best known for inventing the Segway, Dean has also invented ground breaking medical technologies that benefit lives around the world, from drug pumps to revolutionary wheelchairs, to the “Luke robotic arm,” and pioneering inventions in energy and water.

His FIRST organization (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), is dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use and enjoy science and technology, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs where they master skills through innovative projects and robotics competitions.

We had the chance to ask Dean what he thought were the best strategies we can employ as a culture to revitalize and encourage the interest in developing new technologies.  Let’s just say that he didn’t hold back.  This whole interview is a must-watch.

“The only credible stimulus package I can think of is to stimulate the next generation of kids to create an entire generations’ worth or careers’ worth of solving new technologies. Solving problems, and creating real wealth,” said Dean.

Here’s his full interview with our team at SXSWi:

“The simple solution is create a culture in which kids are as passionate about working hard at developing the muscle hanging between their ears as the others.  Create a culture where we celebrate science and technology.”

Dean believes that is critical to science and technology becoming more of a focus for kids.  ”In a free culture you get the best of what you celebrate.  We celebrate sports.  We celebrate entertainment.  We’ve got to get back to convincing — particularly women and minorities — that the world of science and technology is every bit as accessible, every bit as rewarding, every bit as fun, and a whole lot more likely to lead to careers than anything else they can spend their time at,” explains Dean.

His FIRST program is doing just that. High-school-aged participants are eligible to apply for more than $14 million in scholarships from leading colleges, universities, and corporations. Studies have shown that FIRST alumni are highly motivated to pursue careers in science and engineering, thus fulfilling Dean’s goal of inspiring the next generation of technological leaders.

A FIRST competition!

Dean knows from experience that a massive cultural change not going to be easy, and that there’s no quick fix.  ”We can’t blame the schools, we can’t give everybody degrees or diplomas.  It’s going to take a generation to get back to the business of making kids realize how important it is to work hard at becoming smart,” says Dean.

Getting kids to want to take risks is part of the formula, pointing out that “to be willing to take reasonable risks to become entrepreneurs that can deal with failure, that can then go on and solve big problems.  That’s going to require a major cultural change.  If that doesn’t happen quickly, this country is going to continue to see itself sliding away against global competitors that, ironically, have figured out the model that made this country what it is!”

Dean says this is a problem that has to get fixed before other countries and competitors pass us by.  ”They’ve all looked at America and said… that’s the place that had Wilbur and Orville and Thomas Edison and all these great innovators that created wealth and created — well, all the rest of the world is after that now.  And we’re sitting around dribbling while Rome burns. It’s gotta be fixed.”

Learn more about FIRST programs and volunteer opportunities and find an event near you, visit  http://www.usfirst.org/  Also check out these video about the FIRST Robotics program:

Aprille and Lance Goodman are happy to be digital contributors for DylanRatigan.com at SXSW.