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.

“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

" 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.."