Lessons In Disruption From Dean Kamen

Dean Kamen

Serial disruptor Dean Kamen invented the Segway personal transporter, the iBOT articulating electric wheelchair, the low-cost Slingshot water-purification system, and the Luke advanced prosthetic arm for injured soldiers. Of late, he’s been busy producing human tissue to implant into sick and injured people at his new Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute at the old Millyard in Manchester, New Hampshire. “Everyone’s excited that we’re introducing a new industry to replace a textile company here that once ran the largest industrial complex in the United States,” says the legendary technologist and innovator.

The 67-year-old CEO of Deka Research & Development has used technology to make the lives of millions of people worldwide easier, safer, healthier and more satisfying. Along the way, he even found time to create a not-for-profit that gets school kids interested in being the next disruptors. Given Kamen’s pedigree as an innovator extraordinaire, he’s uniquely equipped offer perspective and advice on most CEOs’ deepest, darkest fear—being blindsided by disruptive technology.

Fortunately, Kamen says, more CEOs than ever “have expertise in at least one form of technology. The age of American business being led by MBAs may at least be waning.” Today’s CEOs are relatively well informed about innovations in artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, 3-D printing, advanced robotics, the Internet of Things, machine learning, next-generation genomics, software robotics and virtual and augmented reality—and eager to leverage their potential.

In fact, Kamen says, “CEOs in general have become highly sensitive to the fact that the power of a new technology can be so great that they need to worry about it. With their global brands and reach and finance and distribution, they didn’t used to think that they had to worry about little companies. Now they know they’re at their peril if they don’t.”

How can CEOs cope with the constant threat of disruption? Kamen offers eight pointers:

Be a “technology CEO”: The days when a typical American CEO could leave technology decisions and implementation to others are over. Chiefs should be leading technology discussions and personally familiarizing themselves with potential disruptors and levers.

CEOs of large companies with funds to invest amid this flush economy should be “looking at every kind of technology from the perspective of, ‘How could this add value or reduce costs in my industry?’” Kamen advises. “So then you can leverage that technology properly.”

Watch the biotech space: Kamen points to biotechnology in general as a field whose transformative potential is only now becoming clear to CEOs. Startups using plant-based proteins to make “meats” are upending livestock processors, for example, while other companies are using bacteria to transform waste into liquid fuel. “If the Exxon Mobils of the world think they’re oil companies as opposed to energy companies,” he says, “they might end up in trouble.”

And in particular, Kamen fiercely believes in the bountiful potential of his current focus, human-tissue engineering. “There were ages of things: electricity; the Industrial Revolution; the golden age of physics,” he says. “Now we’re approaching the golden age of biology, the basic understanding of life, of the human genome. And I think in doing so we’re going to transform medicine and people’s expectations of how they deal with biological issues, including aging.”

Find role models: Kamen cites a number of current and former CEOs who have dealt with new technologies very ably and given their companies a huge edge because they do. Andrew Liveris, chief of Dow DuPont, “is amazing,” he says. “He knows where to place his bets on creating the workforce of the future and what kinds of technologies he needs to anticipate becoming critical.” Former Qualcomm Executive Chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs, Kamen says, “is a very smart technology guy who ran a big organization.”

The chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, former DuPont CEO Charles Holliday, also “gets it.” And Rockwell Automation CEO Blake Moret “is always ready to disrupt his own industry and processes,” Kamen enthuses.

Failure is permissible—nay, encouraged: Kamen’s renowned approach includes that “failing is OK, as long as people “are moving in the right direction,” says Susan Kuczmarski, a leadership author who has studied him.

As Kamen puts it, most CEOs “don’t even understand the word ‘failure’ and are so afraid of it that many great opportunities never even get the chance to grow.

Dale Buss :Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.