From workbench to bedside: an inventor’s tale


Dean Kamen’s portfolio of medical inventions ranges from infusion pumps to home dialysis machines to the iBOT, a mobility device for disabled people that is soon to be marketed by Johnson & Johnson. While he may slog through years of trial and error before solving a problem, creating technology is the easy part, Kamen recently told the Associates of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. Getting technology to patients is the challenge.

It often means waiting decades for FDA approval, marshaling support from the scientific community and persuading insurance companies to cover new devices. While not proposing specific reforms, Kamen called for a faster, more streamlined process for taking medical devices to market. “Just because it took longer, is it any better?” asked Kamen, president and CEO of DEKA Corporation. “Did it make it any safer? And what is the lost opportunity cost of not using it in between?”

Technology, Kamen added, is often misunderstood. He amazed the Harkness audience with a video of the iBOT in action. The machine allows the user to climb stairs, navigate rough terrain, reach high shelves and look a standing person in the eye. Kamen’s fear about the iBOT? That it will be perceived as just a souped-up wheelchair.

“Technology is moving faster,” he said, “but our adjustment to it is not. It took people 15 years to stop calling the Model T a horseless carriage.”