Spark Salon Conversation Starters

March 6, 2012

Let's Create Industries

Dean Kamen is an inventor and entrepreneur

The greatest breakthroughs in innovation have occurred when inventors, entrepreneurs, and people with a Big Idea were bold and undeterred by the thought of failure. Just look at the Wright Brothers or Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison or Sergey Brin and Larry Page, or anyone else who ever changed the world. They just wouldn’t quit, even when the odds were against them.

They didn’t think of the competition their companies would eventually face, or the regulatory issues they might one day confront. They simply had an inherent drive to invent something for the common good, regardless of the challenges or potential for failure.

I hear so much today about the need for jobs in this country. It is absolutely true that many in this nation are suffering the effects of unemployment, but the lack of jobs in America is the symptom, not the disease. We need big thinkers in this country who seek to change the world, not just create jobs. Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers were driven by the promise of discovery and innovation, not a paycheck. But the result of their brilliance and drive was not only jobs, but whole new industries that transformed our society.

If we seize the opportunity to solve the world’s biggest problems, we will not only benefit mankind, but will also restore our nation’s economic strength and global prestige.

One of the biggest problems I see is the need to bring clean water and electricity to the billions of the world’s poorest people who are without these basic necessities. Nearly one person in six lives without regular access to safe drinking water, and more than twice that many lack access to adequate sanitation, according to the United Nations. Water-related diseases kill a child every eight seconds, and are responsible for 80 percent of all easily preventable illnesses and deaths in the developing world.

The inventor in me knows that there are ways to overcome this problem, ideas that will create a revolutionary new industry that will produce a product that is at once desperately needed and frustratingly unavailable. This industry will create new companies, new jobs, and new hope for billions of people, not to mention a renewed intellectual spark that will capture the imaginations and ideas of all people.

What we need in this country today are those Big Ideas that are the engine of innovation. Such breakthroughs not only create jobs, but also wealth and possibilities for those who live to answer the hard questions and solve the difficult problems.

Today, we are testing this theory within FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). Twenty years ago, my Big Idea was to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders. Our method? Robotics competitions that combine the thrill of competition with the excitement of invention.

Today, with an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in our schools and an annual White House Science Fair—at which the President of the United States likens young innovators to the champions of the Super Bowl—one could say that our idea has been validated. America’s best corporations, including Qualcomm, not only support teams, but entire regional events. Popular culture icons like will.i.am and Morgan Freeman have used their artistic talents to promote our cause, and this year, FIRST will be experienced by 300,000 kids around the globe.

But I am not satisfied yet. It is time to go beyond competition. Today, FIRST participants not only compete for trophies and bragging rights, but also have the opportunity to tell us their own Big Ideas. Thanks to partnerships with organizations like Everyday Edisons, the X PRIZE Foundation, and The Abbott Foundation, FIRST is able to help make their dreams a reality with new awards for innovation.

In 2011, FIRST announced the inaugural Global Innovation Award for middle school children in our FIRST® LEGO® League robotics competition. The entries were amazing, and included: a prosthetic hand device enabling users with limb abnormalities to hold, stabilize, and secure items; a non-invasive glucose monitoring device for kids with diabetes that uses RFID technology and microchips to eliminate finger pricking; and an unfurling bio-absorbable arterial stent that expands upon demand. At the award ceremony held at the United States Patent and Trademark Office last June, I saw among the honored kids not only my future employees, but my future competitors as well.

This year, we have invited our two high school-aged programs, the FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC®) and FIRST®Tech Challenge (FTC®), to solve complex engineering problems such as those set forth by the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges in the inaugural FIRST Future Innovator Award. I have learned to never underestimate the brilliance of the students in FIRST, and I am sure that their solutions to these problems, from restoring and improving our urban infrastructure to providing access to clean water and air, will delight and inspire us this year.

Therein is the rub. The real competition is not for trophies, or production controls or cost reductions, but for the best ideas. Looking at these kids, I am more confident than ever that the next generation of innovators will win that contest. One of these kids is going to cure cancer or create the fuels that will power our future. How’s that for a Big Idea?

 

This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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