Segway Inventor Dean Kamen on Risk-Taking and Innovation

Segway inventor Dean Kamen explains why it's essential to take risks in order to innovate.

Inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen is founder of DEKA Research & Development. Best known for inventing the Segway electric scooter, he believes in the power of innovation to change the world. Here are his thoughts on “5 Things I've Learned”.

Taking risks is essential.

In my case, taking risks is easier because it’s my limb; I own the tree. I quit school at a time when no one quit school and started a company in a basement with no money. I discovered that I’m a risk taker. I get up in the morning knowing that I’m either going to have a spectacular win or loss that is going to be exciting. I prefer the former but either is more appealing than the warm death of mediocrity.

The future is the world of ideas.

Innovation and creativity will be the only serious metrics to sustain us as a world-class country. I believe CIOs are in a huge position to drive this change. They are technically savvy and have a more open perspective on change than others in senior management. I think it’s because they’ve seen firsthand what happens when you fall behind the state of the technology. That’s one reason I created First, which holds competitions to foster science, technology and leadership skills in high school students. Companies need the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Hype is the enemy of innovation.

There was a ridiculous amount of press coverage related to the Segway. I knew the hype around what the invention could do would be problematic. I knew it wouldn’t be able to do what people expected it to do right away. I don’t think anyone could make a product that could fulfill everything claimed for the Segway.

Outsourcing is practical and necessary.

This country has always outsourced things. Each generation has a golden goose and then they outsource those golden eggs. Outsourcing is a measure of the fact that we’re always raising the bar. As an entrepreneur I’ve learned that we stand on the shoulders of the generation before us and grab the next rail, provided that we’re the best educated, ambitious and courageous.

Innovation comes in many shapes.

We have two classes of projects at DEKA. Most people here would affectionately call one of those groups “Dean’s Crazy Ideas.” Those projects tend to be high risk—nobody knows whether they’re doable. I’ve learned from these projects that sometimes we must stumble around in the garden of new ideas to find a better way to solve a problem. But we also work on well-defined problems where we’ve got a good solution and need an innovative way to make it work. In my experience, you have to strike a balance between the two. If you think you’re in development mode but you’re really in that other place where failure is the most common outcome, then bad things can happen.

As told to Katherine Walsh, CIO Associate Staff Writer.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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