Dean Kamen Offers Advice For Inventors Dean Kamen's inventions range from medical devices, such as a stair-climbing wheelchair, to the much-hyped Segway Personal Transporter. These days, he's working on new technologies that he hopes will transform the world.
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Dean Kamen Offers Advice For Inventors

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Dean Kamen Offers Advice For Inventors

Dean Kamen Offers Advice For Inventors

Dean Kamen Offers Advice For Inventors

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Dean Kamen's inventions range from medical devices, such as a stair-climbing wheelchair, to the much-hyped Segway Personal Transporter. These days, he's working on new technologies that he hopes will transform the world.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Dean Kamen maybe our best known living inventor - famous for the wheelchair that climbs stairs and stands on two wheels, the first wearable infusion pump and insulin pump and, of course, the Segway personal transporter. This and much more from the man who didn't graduate college, hated high school, and became a multi-millionaire at 30. He still tinkers but these days he focuses on devices he hopes will transform the world: a box that turns the most poisonous, polluted muck into drinking water, a robotic arm that gives amputees a sense of touch, a car that runs on garbage. And in his spare time, he preaches the benefits of science and technology to more than two hundred thousand students every year through his robotics competition.

Later in this hour common knowledge tells us that the murder rate jumps in a down economy, so why did it drop? But first, inventors - call and tell us what you're working on and what inspired you to concentrate on science and technology. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is And you can also find us on twitter @totn.

Dean Kamen is the founder of DEKA Research and Development and joins today from the studio at New Hampshire Public Radio. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. DEAN KAMEN (Founder, DEKA Research and Development): It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And when you start to take on a project, do you start an idea about technology, and gee whiz, this could do that; or do you start by looking at a problem and saying how do I solve it?

Mr. KAMEN: I wish I could give you a simple answer to that very fair and reasonable question. I think it typically is a little bit of each. Typically, you know about problems for many years. We all know about certain problems we wish we didn't have.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAMEN: And typically, you also watch as the world evolves new and better technologies capable of doing more things. And every once in a while, there seems to be an intersection where you realize some new technology that's suddenly available and affordable and reliable might be, in some new and different way, applied to some old problem that could really make a big difference.

CONAN: Hmm. Was there a first time when you were a kid and you started working with stuff where you teach yourself about technology, about mechanics and electronics, or were you're teaching yourself about, you know, gee, I would like to invent something?

Mr. KAMEN: Actually, as a kid, I was less interested in the physical tinkering than thinking about what we would now call the physics, as opposed to the engineering. I remember as a kid, thinking more about, you know, watching the world go by and being amazed by how both complex but consistent and elegant it was. You know, why, you know, when you put that cold glass of water on the table it kind of warms up at a very predictable way. You put that hot cup of chocolate on the table, it cools down - things that are at room temperature never get either hot or cold. You know, you drop a ball, it bounces, it bounces always lower and lower until it stops. How does it know? Does it remember, does it have a computer? How does it do that? And watching the world go by fascinated me in trying to understand its rules and its symmetries fascinated me.

But as I got older I realized that you could through the world of physics, understand some of that stuff but later on through the rules of engineering you could apply some of those understandings to creating products.

CONAN: I was interested. I watched a film about your competition that you started high school students. Your organization is called FIRST - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. And you did this for high school kids and they tried to all compete against each other. They were given the same kinds of quick kits and they each try to device a robot that will do specific tasks better than other people will. It is specifically a competition - why did you decide to set it up that way?

Mr. KAMEN: I decided to make a competition because first, was to really enhance it to a very, I think, a large concern I have and a lot of people have in this country which is so many kids in this country are literary not just interested in but obsessed by sports and by entertainment and it so dominates our culture that it crowds out in many cases kids ability to separate what our past times and distractions for what are important things they've got to do while they're young�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAMEN: �like learn and become technically competent, be able to take on important careers in the future. And I realized there's no point in whining and complaining about the power of sports to push other things out. We're better off harnessing that power. So, I said what if could take the venue of sports and the passion and the power that sports has in our culture. But put into it the science and technology to that the content so that kids now can take that same passion and energy that they focus on becoming good at bouncing a ball.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAMEN: And use that - that same kind of format, sports, to give them the capacity to get passionate to excel to become a varsity algebra person or a varsity physics person or to think really deeply about how to develop the skill sets to create the next generation of scientists, engineers and innovators. If this country doesn't quickly return to a focus on creating the most innovative workforce this globe has, this country is going to continue, I think, to decline and that would be pretty bad.

CONAN: We're talking with Dean Kamen who received the national medal of technology back in 2000. He is a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 800-898-8255. Email us, Let's talk with Fred(ph). Fred is with us from Old Mission in Michigan.

FRED (Caller): Dean, good to talk to you again. We met about 10 years ago when you received the Da Vinci Award from the Michigan Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and we had a chance for a chat. But since that time, I've been a mentor for our FIRST robotics team here at Traverse City Central High School - which has just been marvelous. The program is fantastic just, as you explained. It is on the level of sports, except this is a live skill. A comment I would make - it goes beyond the science and technology and the engineering. We have others involved in the project that help with fundraising, marketing, PR, so what we now have is a complete team that's just not technical side of things. And, of course, that's what happens in the real world.

CONAN: It sounds like a small corporation.

FRED: Well, yeah, and it kind of is, and getting organized is a very big challenge. But the good news is there's the FIRST Web site has a lot of resources and so there's team to team mentoring and these teams have never even met. They may be in another state, which is fantastic.

Mr. KAMEN: Mm-hmm.

FRED: The question I'd have for Dean, is that - that the only thing that bothers me a little bit, as you know, this Saturday we'll see the telecast and we'll get our project and we got six weeks to get it done. Over the last few years, it seems the complexity of the game and the complexity of the robotics are getting a little bit more significant than I think is manageable -particularly for what I call a fairly young team in terms of experience. Some teams have been involved in this for years and so, as the juniors and seniors graduate, they bring along the freshman. So, the team - despite every four years rolling over, at least every four years, they get a lot of experience.

We're fairly young and so�

CONAN: Rookie teams are at a disadvantage. Are the competitions too complex, Dean Kamen?

Mr. KAMEN: Well, first of all, I would like to thank you for being a mentor and being a supporter and saying such positive things and as you probably know Michigan is a real powerhouse state for FIRST. But to your question, yeah, we agonize over that all the time. On the one hand we want every year to add more really neat, cool, exciting technology to the kits. You know, the first year it was 10 pounds of junk in a box that we handed out about the size of a shoe boxes. Here it is a 130 pounds, the stuff including very sophisticated computers, vision systems, cameras, gyro, sensors. So on the one hand, every year, we want to make it more exciting with more stuff for two reasons. One is you want the returning teams always to see a new and bigger challenge so they stay with us, and we have well over 90 percent retention over the 18 years.

But to your point, the frustration is we recognize that a rookie team that shows up for the first time in their 18th years, and sees this incredible amount of technology, can be intimidated.

So yes, it's a real issue, yes, we worry about it, but I'll give you a couple of answers. One, we work really hard to put enough stuff in the kit that even a relatively new, or for instance, a rookie team, is still going to be able to come with a solution that works, that can get them out on the field with a robot that they're going to be proud of and not frustrated by.

Second, as you pointed out, the mentoring from team to team is phenomenal. We have over 85,000 engineers and scientists and mentors that donate their time all over the country now in nearly 2,000 of these high school teams, but we also have the kids from all these teams, hundreds of thousands of them, that work together, mentoring each other and helping each other. So that sort of helps.

And third, I would tell you that we also now have a number of different levels of competition. What we've been just talking about is FRC, the FIRST Robotics Competition. It's kind of the capstone, the Super Bowl, the level...

CONAN: The varsity, as you said.

Mr. KAMEN: The varsity. But we also have what we call FIRST Tech Challenge, which is a kit of substantially smaller parts. You still have to design and build things, but the kit is more inclusive of what you need. And then we even have, in a partnership with the LEGO company, using the Mindstorms brick from LEGO, we have something called not our Little League but our FIRST LEGO League for the younger kids, and believe it or not, we even have something now called Junior FIRST LEGO League for the really young kids that are being inspired by watching their older brothers and sisters participate in these other competitions.

CONAN: So the tee-ball equivalent of the robotics competition. Fred, thanks for...

FRANK: There's a great opportunity, all the way from elementary school to high school. I'm working with a...

CONAN: Well...

FRANK: I've got to tell you, it's an awesome thing to see, and it goes, as I mentioned earlier, way beyond the technical side of things. I think it's life's lessons that these kids will never, never forget. So thanks a lot for doing it, and we're looking forward to getting the game here on Saturday.

CONAN: Good luck, Fred.

FRED: Thanks.

Mr. KAMEN: Thank you very much, and I think you're really, really going to like this year's game.

CONAN: The documentary we just saw on the 2008 competition, it was great to see, at the end, one of the young women participating in it saying, you know, I was going to study law, but now I'm thinking about going into engineering.

Mr. KAMEN: I know. I think in a kind of comical way, when I give talks about why kids should get involved, typically people think we're just trying to save the kids that would otherwise drop out of school or not stay focused or end up, you know, not developing skill sets for exciting jobs; and it's true we focus a lot on that, and I'm happy to tell you that 38 percent of the kids on these teams are women and minorities that most people would say would never participate.

I really do - I really do like being able to say we can also save one of your kids from going off to law school, and that's a big win.

CONAN: More with Dean Kamen in a moment. Inventors, what are you working on? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also zap us an email. The address is Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. When it comes to inventors, you don't get much bigger than Dean Kamen. President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology, later inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He also created FIRST, an organization that we've talked about that encourages students to get into science and technology.

A film crew followed several of the teams from the 2008 competition for a TV documentary called "Gearing Up." You can watch the full project online, through a link at Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our focus this hour, America's future and how it's being created in basements and garages around the country. Inventors, call and tell us what you're working on and what inspired you to focus on science and technology. 800-989-8255. Email us, You're find us also at twitter @TOTN. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Jerry(ph), Jerry with us from Tempe.

JERRY (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JERRY: YeS, Dean, first of all, thank you very much for being who you are and inspiring us inventors, and the alike, all across the world. You've been - I've been reading your patents and all your newspaper articles and press releases for years now, and being an inventor myself, it was very inspiring, so thank you.

Mr. KAMEN: Well thank you.

JERRY: I'm working on an invention that I've been working on for four years. We're on our third patent process right now, and I want inventors and your listeners out there to realize - keep going. Sometimes it's a tough road. Inventions don't always have to be technical would be my advice. And I have an ergonomic backpack system that allows any wearer universal access. So the backpack carries all the gear everyone else is inventing, and the backpack can flow(ph) around the body at will. Blind people, they'll never have to set the backpack down. People in wheelchairs can use this backpack, military, and the like.

So it's been tough. We have some investors. All the meetings you go to is really difficult to understand for inventors sometimes. But Dean, comment if you would, about the whole process, and what is your favorite part of the process? Maybe there's some information you can give us inventors out there.

Mr. KAMEN: Thank you.

CONAN: I'm sure it's applying to the patent office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAMEN: Well, I think you summed up the process pretty well when you said lots of failures, never give up, keep working. You know, lots of people ask me for advice as if I somehow have found some easy way to create a solution to a problem, and there's no such thing. Every successful person I've ever seen has one characteristic, and some are well-educated, some are not, some seem to be just gifted in some way, you know, some great mental gift.

No matter what you look for in a person, I think ultimately, particularly in somebody who's trying to innovate, the most consistent characteristic required for their success is tenacity. It's hard to try to do something new. It's hard to do things that haven't been done before, and even once you do it, it's hard to convince other people that have never seen something that has never been done that way before, that they should give up what they're doing. Even if they don't like what they're doing, people are very reluctant to change.

So there are really two parts of every invention process. One is actually make something that really solves a real need, and the second is convince people and organizations that they have to start doing something differently than they were doing before.

That's generally a long and frustrating process.

CONAN: Here's...

JERRY: Thank you for that. I have one quick question, and I can take this off the air, if need be, unless you have questions for me. What is your most favorite, a-ha moment you've had, and where was it? Like wham, in the shower? Was it driving somewhere? Was it in a conference? And do you have a favorite, like, a tear-in-your-eye moment where you realize that the invention's going to work, and it's going to be able to be useful in society?

Mr. KAMEN: You know, I'm also asked by lots of people these days what's the best project we've ever done, and my answer is now my safest and truest answer: I don't know. It hasn't happened yet.

Every year that goes by, I have more smart people, we have better technology available to us, we have more experience. And so we take on bigger, and we hope, more potentially valuable projects.

You know, we started making specialty medical products when my older brother was in med school. We started making pumps for him to treat babies with cancer, a very small population. We later expanded that to being able to make insulin pumps for diabetics, a much bigger population.

Today, we're working on ways to make clean water for the developing world. Over a billion people every year are sick or dead because they don't have it. We're trying to work on ways to make electricity in remote places, at the point of use, using no fuels that would cause more environmental impact. In fact, we're trying to develop technologies that will collect stuff that is, left to its own devices, making the environment worse.

So these are sort of like electric generators that are vacuum cleaners that suck bad stuff out of the environment and turn it into electricity.

So my long answer to your short question, what was our best project or our best a-ha moment, I hope it hasn't happened yet. I think young is about looking forward and being optimistic and wondering what's next. Being old is looking backward and wishing for times gone by, and I hope never to get old.

CONAN: We're at the beginning of a new decade, a new year. From your perspective, what do you think, you know, as you look ahead - what's likely to be your next breakthrough? Or if you knew, you'd obviously be even richer than you are now.

Mr. KAMEN: Well, as I said, we're working very hard on some of our energy-related projects like our Stirling generator. We're working very hard on developing a realistic, practical way to make point-of-use water available all over the world.

We're working, of course, my day job, on all our medical projects. We're trying to make a bunch of technologies that right now have to happen in a hospital, which is: A, an expensive setting; and B, not a very appealing setting for most people. We're trying to take some core technologies and make them available for therapies that people can self-administer at home, for instance daily dialysis of all kinds.

That would dramatically reduce the cost of these therapies. It would dramatically improve the outcomes, and it would give people lots of choices to have a better quality of life.

So we're very busy, as I say, in my day job, medical stuff, and my day job is mostly there to feed my fantasies and to fund my fantasies, like support our FIRST Competitions all over the country and now the world, and supporting some of my other projects, water and power, that right now don't have the support of major corporate clients or government agencies yet, because they're still in that stage where most people would say they're too high-risk.

CONAN: Well, we have a question by email on one of those projects from Gary(ph) in Marietta, Georgia. Where do we stand on the artificial limb for amputees? What's the status of VA and U.S. government funding?

Mr. KAMEN: So that's a really terrific project. Thank you for that question. We not only finished the first generation of those prosthetic limbs, but we delivered some down to the Veterans Administration recently to actually be on people full-time in a clinical-trial setting.

We've been out to BAMC, Fort Brooks in Texas. We've been down to Walter Reed. The response we're getting from the military, from DARPA, from the Veterans Administration, from the docs and from the families and from these kids is just astounding.

So we've redoubled our efforts to finish the next generation. We should be putting new prosthetic arms on patients early this coming year, and we're hoping to be able to start supplying them in quantities to meet the needs as quickly as we can.

CONAN: Let's go next to Alison(ph), Alison with us in Norwell in Massachusetts.

ALISON (Caller): Hi, thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

ALISON: I just wanted to thank you, Dean, for the FIRST Team, robotics teams. I coach a team and have been coaching a team for the past four years, for the nine- to 12-year-olds, and my daughter has recently become involved, as well. And I think it's a real wonderful thing to give girls exposure to this science and technology.

Mr. KAMEN: Well, I thank you for being a mentor, and having women mentors is almost as important to me as having more young girls on the teams because the very powerful cultural stereotype that somehow has evolved in this country that science and technology and engineering and inventing is somehow not for women is astounding to me, and it cheats virtually 50 percent of our population out of aspiring to do some of the most fun and most exciting things people can do and some of the great careers people can have.

So make sure your daughter stays involved. Make sure she goes on up through the rest of these programs and on into high school, and then maybe we'll see her as a mentor when she gets into college.

ALISON: Absolutely, and thank you for making it fun for them because it's really putting some real-world experience in their hands.

CONAN: Alison, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

ALISON: Thank you.

CONAN: I made a joke earlier about the fun part of the process being the patent application. You have hundreds of patents, but some people say the patent office has become so bureaucratic that it's actually stifling creativity at the moment.

Mr. KAMEN: Well, I would strongly disagree that the patent office is in any way stifling creativity, but I will tell you, I'm not sure it's bureaucratic. It's - the problem that it's got such a huge backlog. You know, most businesses would be thrilled with backlogs because when they get a backlog they quickly grow, they respond, they hire people. But government agencies don't have that flexibility. And so what's happened is as the value of intellectual property has gone up and as people have realized the value of patents, there's been an explosion of patent applications.

And in some categories you now have to wait years - literally two, three years before you can get an action on a patent and it's called pendency. And there are something like half a million patent applications sitting at the patent office waiting to be examined. And I have strongly urged anybody in Washington that will listen to me, senators and congressmen, that if there's any piece of our stimulus package that's going to have big returns for this country, it would be to support the patent office, support the patent system, get them more resources, give them what they need to more quickly and more efficiently start reviewing and issuing high quality patents, because they - by issuing those patents they are creating the opportunity for people to literally create wealth as they solve problems, as they give the world solutions to problems. But I think the patent office is a very - it's an unsung hero of the American culture and the American economy and it needs more support.

CONAN: This email from Joseph. I'm an independent inventor myself with nearly 250 U.S. and international patents and I'm concerned about proposed changes in the patent system. I'm wondering if Dean as an independent inventor has any comment on large companies' current attempts to change the patent system to what appears to be their advantage.

Mr. KAMEN: Well, sadly, I think he's got a reason to be concerned. I think there is a movement now to create a patent reform, as they call it, and I think some of it inevitably will be good. But I share his concern that there's a lot going on in that patent reform package that could either as an unintended consequence or sadly as it gets gamed by the people that use or take advantage of the patent system, there are things in that package that may undermine the value of patents or make them more difficult to small inventors to get and to hold onto.

I have strongly urged, again, all those people in the process to make sure that whatever reform is going to place they should make certainty better, not worse. They should make the time it takes to get a patent examined and issued shorter, not longer. They should ensure that the quality of that patent is good even it makes it harder to get one, but that once you are the holder of a patent you can count on it; more importantly, the people that you're going to go ask to invest in your invention can count on it.

So I think he's concerned about some legitimate potential issues. And I hope that the public and particularly our representatives in Washington think long and hard and are very careful before they implement any changes to the patent system that don't strengthen it.

CONAN: Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Darcy. Darcy with us from Empire in Colorado.

DARCY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DARCY: I just wanted to say, Dean Kamen, you've always been my hero ever since I heard about Fred and Ginger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DARCY: And I'm not an inventor but I had an idea ever since then that I would love to just share with you as a nurse. I think it would be a wonderful idea to have some kind of a transport system that could move quadriplegics and exercise their arms and legs at the same time and actually get to go somewhere. I think it would be very valuable for quadriplegics and stroke patients - anybody that's had nerve damage, because I know that if you can keep those limbs moving that you're more likely maybe to get some nerves back. And I think you're the guy that could do that or put it out for competition.

Mr. KAMEN: Well, I think you'd be happy to know that while this is a constant area of research, and as you know rehab medicine is a pretty big field, but I think you'd be happy to know that literally over just the last couple of years of there's some pretty big breakthroughs in the research, in the understanding of the neurology that are allowing better machines to be put out there that can be used by paraplegics and quadriplegics to exercise their limbs in such a way that actually, it's - they're demonstrating now that they can restore function that people thought was gone forever.

So it's a very active field all of a sudden, lots of progresses being made, and machines for rehab and for exercise are coming now at a pace higher than they have in at least all the time I've been looking at this field.

DARCY: That's wonderful to hear. I think if they could actually take the person somewhere, they'd get a lot more out of it though.

CONAN: All right, Darcy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Nick. Nick with us from Kalamazoo.

NICK (Caller): Yes. Okay, Dean. This is something that has come to my attention. My brother is an instructor in the woodshop and the other mechanical arts in the school system here. He has just received notice that his shop is going to be closed in June - funding blah, blah, blah. There has been another four shops in the Southeast - or Southwest Michigan area that have been closed down just in this last nine months. If we can't teach people to work with their hands, they don't think mechanically. I'll let it go from there.

Mr. KAMEN: Well, sadly, I have to agree with you that A) the trend has been lots of schools are cutting out anything that whether it's the extra funding or they think it's distraction from a quote, �academic� curriculum. That trend has been going on and I agree with you - giving people skill sets where they can work with their hands, and not as much just to develop that eye/hand coordination but really to develop the ability to use their brain to take some abstract idea and then using that wonderful opposed thumb and ability of humans to create tools that then can be used to create inventions, that is a very valuable and underrated skill set, and for some reason, again, the culture of the United States has for reasons that I don't understand put a damper on almost any kind of education-based program that actually gives kids those kind of skill sets. And I think we've got to reverse that trend, and one of the reasons that, first, I think works so well, is so exciting to their kids, is because it gets them out into industry, where there's all sorts of incredibly sophisticated robotic tools, laser cutters. And they can see that building and understanding tools shouldn't be considered a menial function, but it's one of the great achievements of humanity.

CONAN: Can you stay with us over the break?

Mr. KAMEN: Sure.

CONAN: All right. Dean Kamen's us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In just a few minutes we'll talk with James Fox from Northeastern University about the drop in crime rates, a statistics which surprised a lot of people and in a time - economic hard times. We wanted to finish up the conversation we're having with the inventor Dean Kamen.

And we got this email from Barbara in Goodrich, Michigan: Thanks, Dean, for work with First Robotics. My daughter is attending a United World College, which is a high school in Bosnia. Thanks to confidence given to her by being a drive team captain for First Robotics, she has talked the school into forming a first team in Bosnia and will have Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian team members and will do a small part for world peace. The rookie team is being mentored by a former national championship team from Goodrich, Michigan. So there's an international aspect to the First Robotics competition.

I also wanted to go to this email from Sarah(ph) that we got from Colombia, Missouri. Do innovative people ever think - this idea is so unusual it might actually be stupid only to perhaps later see it successfully implemented by someone else?

Mr. KAMEN: To the second comment, yes, I think that happens all the time. Almost the more outrageous an idea appears upfront, the more likely it is down the road. In some version it might come to life. To your first set of comments about first being a tool of international diplomacy, a way to bring kids all over the world to focus on building things together instead of distrusting each other or learning how to destroy things, you need to know that while we started in this country, literary the little country of Israel is holding a regional this year in March.

There'll be teams there from Turkey, from many other countries; Israel; a number of the Arab states will be sending teams. It's quite an astounding thing to - and a gratifying thing to realize that kids not only can learn technology but they can avoid learning the things that each generation has taught them in the past about why they should hate and distrust each other. Science and technology are our one universal truth. It's an unintended consequence but a very powerful consequence we see of what's happening with the growth of First.

And the story that that young girl developed great confidence to go do this because of First, again, I can assure you is not a unique experience. What we end up seeing and what I tells a lot of the parents after their kids work so hard at doing this is that we don't expect all these kids to be scientists and engineers and choose that as a career - that's not the point. It's to give them an option. It's to let them see that it's possible, but mostly in six or seven weeks in a robotics competition nobody believes they're really going to learn all of engineering or even a substantial amount of engineering or physics or math or anything else.

What they really build in that six weeks is not a robot. They're building self confidence. They're building serious relationships. They're building all sorts of important life lessons in a context that puts kids together with serious adults in a positive way.

CONAN: Now, let's get a caller in. This is Bob. Bob with us from Boise.

BOB (Caller): Thanks for taking my call. I'm curious if your guest has an opinion on public domain invention, inventions that are just not patented, just set up for public use.

CONAN: This is the equivalent of open source in computers.

BOB: Exactly, yes.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. KAMEN: Yeah. I think those people that will put their time and their effort and their energy into creating something and then put it in the public, that's great. A lot of us do things for monetary reasons, a lot of us do things for other reasons. There's a lot of philanthropy in the world. I think that's great. One caution, however, I'd give you is that if some great new idea is put into the public and then it's going to take an enormous amount of money to turn that great new idea into something that actually can be produced and used, ironically an unintended consequence might be that nobody will put that kind of time, money, resource, into creating that new thing because if they can't keep, for instance, the protection that a patent would give them, they'll see no way to get a return on their investment.

So while I think it's, frankly, naive and a little overly simplistic to say that a patented object or the patent process might increase the price of some things by, let's say, the value of a royalty, I think people forget that it's the ultimate incentive to create new things. And, typically, the new things people create are created because they can do a job better or simpler or cheaper than the other alternative. But unless there's an incentive to create that new or better or simpler or cheaper system, it might not get done. And even if the idea of how to do it is now available, if that cannot be protected and the incentive is removed, you many never see that great new idea become a reality.

CONAN: Thank...

BOB: And I think there's often ideas that don't get put forward because there is no broad commercial value to them, more of a specific market. And if things were in public domain, then, you know, incrementally, our lifestyle, our lives could improve through these different inventions, different ideas. And I'm also curious about just putting things out on public domain and having a protection from that the same way that one computer program, the Linux, was protected.

CONAN: Anyway, Bob, thanks very much for the call. We're going to have to move on. We appreciate it. Dean Kamen, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. KAMEN: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Dean Kamen joined us today from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio, talking about his first robotics competition, which gets underway this weekend. And so, you may want to participate in that.

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