Lessons In Disruption From Dean Kamen

“I say to these guys, ‘If you can try something, even if it doesn’t work, and you can learn a lot from it quickly, it wasn’t a failure but an investment in moving forward,” he says. “I’m prepared to fall down, and as long as I fall down seven times and stand up eight times, I didn’t fail.”

Blaze new trails: Kuczmarski says that Kamen “makes a living finding problems—that is, consumer problems that he can solve with new products and new technologies. He has no interest in searching for ways to improve existing products and services.” And rather than take the road less traveled, “he builds a brand new highway.”

Kamen says his approach has been to bring scientific and technology innovations to fruition then let others commercialize them. “If I can make the technology work, I give it over to the big guys who can scale it quickly,” he says. “It may not be the smartest business strategy, but it gives me more opportunities in one lifetime to work on a whole host of different kinds of problems that I think need to be solved.”

He contrasted his approach with that of Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and other enterprises pushing the edge of technology in various ways. “With the scale of his successes, [Musk is] overwhelmingly a better business person than I am,” Kamen says. “He focuses more on large-scale businesses; I focus on technologies to enable those large-scale businesses.”

Lead with your passion: He holds more than 440 patents, but nothing excites Kamen more than his involvement in building FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics, a program in which hundreds of thousands of American schoolchildren now participate. Kamen now plans to take FIRST to a global stage.

“We’ve made a sport where every kid can turn ‘pro,’” he said. “These kinds of skill sets are going to lead to millions of career opportunities.”

Ken Stanford, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a long-time associate of Kamen, said that FIRST “is what really drives him. It sounds cheesy, and it’s unusual in that most successful people have a product that they believe in, but his product is inspiration.”

Don’t be afraid of drive: Kamen has a full-size, well-lit softball field on the grounds of his home—for DEKA employees to use. And except for his family, Kamen doesn’t indulge diversions from his life’s work, Stanford said.

“And if you have a hobby that’s more important to you than doing the work he wants you to get done, you’re not the kind of person who should work for him,” the professor said.

Be wary of government: Even if CEOs can get a handle on it, Kamen is wary about the capacity of governments and even entire societies to deal with the impact of new technologies. “Certain kinds of technologies are becoming so powerful that they’re even affecting the capability of governments to manage processes and infrastructure,” he says. “It’s shaking up the way we view our government and maybe its relationship to the people, and to the world.”

The growing implications of technology to impinge on all areas of human life and society are one reason, Kamen says, that technologies, their purveyors, and the general public have become so political about technology-induced change. “It affects everything,” he said. “And I’m not sure government is keeping pace with the rate at which technology can and should offer solutions to really critical human needs.”

This is where enlightened business leadership can help build the “infrastructures and ecosystems of resources” that are going to solve problems that are technological at their roots, he said. “It takes a huge amount of teamwork. But on the other hand, almost every big success started with someone who had a big idea and courage—and the organization turns out to be the long, long shadow of some individual who stood up and said, ‘We can do this.’”

Read more: Keys to Embracing Disruptive Technology