Last modified: March 2, 2002 6:00 AM PST
Segway: Don't call it a scooter
With his bulky black briefcase perched beside him, Kamen calmly demonstrated his invention--also known as Ginger--to 350 people at the HBS Cyberposium 2002 technology conference on Feb. 10. Kamen, dressed in jeans and a flannel-lined jean jacket, quietly motored back and forth at the front of the carpeted auditorium and delivered his keynote remarks straight up, without notes.
Referring affectionately to his gray-colored transporter as "this thing," he discussed his invention's virtues and what he considers its potentially revolutionary effect on human transportation, as well as the trials and satisfactions of being an inventor and an entrepreneur.
After a year of media hype, the device was unveiled in early December. Kamen's company is planning versions of the device for consumers and corporate clients.
As the creator of a vehicle that is electrically powered and produces no emissions, Kamen, a career inventor with 150 patents, also used the opportunity to take a few jabs at Enron's collapse and the overly complicated energy business in general. At one point he fell into a brief, physics-laced riff on the fine qualities of energy properties before assuring the audience, dryly, "None of it is as complicated as trying to understand an electric bill."
Kamen presented himself as Exhibit A in the myth of the rabidly successful entrepreneur. Directing his message toward aspiring entrepreneurs in the audience, he said there are certainly rewards to the entrepreneurial life but it's not a life everyone can stand.
"The word entrepreneur is associated with success and adventure. From my life, the only thing I can tell you that's consistently associated with entrepreneurship is failure, and the only thing consistently associated with invention is frustration," he said. "There is a long road between the idea and the reality."
On the road
The Segway--named from the word "segue" (or moving seamlessly from one mode to another)--still has a long road ahead of it, said Kamen. Though the product's potential is clear to him and his team--the Segway does not guzzle gas nor oil and could lessen our political dependence on the Middle East, he said; it puts transportation on a human scale and could transform life in cities by helping people move faster and farther--he confronts a lack of imagination and understanding from the world at large, particularly from regulators.
Until Segway, Kamen said he was content to license his inventions to other companies that manufacture, market and distribute them. "Carefree mobility" seems to be the mantra behind some of the better-known inventions. They often have a health care focus and include a fluid management system that is used in a compact, portable Baxter peritoneal dialysis machine. The genesis for Segway was a self-balancing mobility aid Kamen developed for Johnson & Johnson. That device, called IBOT, helps people with physical disabilities go up stairs and over uneven terrain, and puts them at eye-level with other people.
The Segway technology could have gone the way of the admittedly lucrative jet-ski, snowmobile and golf-cart businesses, but Kamen said he wouldn't have felt fulfilled. "The reason why we uncharacteristically decided to build a whole company around this thing wasn't because I thought in the end we can make a lot more money--because we will; we'll see--but because I really couldn't see spending years of my life developing something which would turn out to be a scooter. People know I get offended when this thing is referred to as a scooter," he sighed.
"Invention and entrepreneurship isn't about pure technology," said Kamen. "Most people take whatever they see in front of them and relate it to something they understand.
"For at least ten years after Ford started building cars, people called them horseless carriages. It wasn't obvious to call it a car. They used to call the radio 'the wireless.' Innovation is much more about changing people and their perceptions and their attitudes and their willingness to accept change than it is about physics and engineering.
"Innovation for me was how to make people understand that we now have a device that has the footprint of a human, that can walk around in a crowd like a human, that can bump into somebody without hurting him. It has all these attributes, (so) you gotta make sure that the world doesn't see it as a vehicle. Vehicles get regulated. Can you see this thing standing on the highway in front of a Mack truck? 'It has holders, it has wheels; it must be a motor vehicle.' But applying a nineteenth-century mind to a 21st-century product is the only way you have progress."
Engineers have solved the long-distance and medium-distance problem of transportation, he said, but they're still stumped by the short-distance problem. In cities nowadays, people have the same choices as the ancient Greeks if they want to travel from neighborhood A to neighborhood B without waiting for the subway and the bus--they can still wear sandals, he observed. But cities are larger now and walking a mile takes 15 or 20 minutes. "No one has 15 and 20 minutes," Kamen said. Cities are only going to get bigger and more populous in the future, he said, and getting around in an increasingly fragile ecological environment is more and more important.
The Segway should be made available around to world to people of all economic classes, according to Kamen. As a non-polluting mobility device, it could serve as an equalizer of sorts. Since Sept. 11, he added, people have started to focus on the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. "We're starting to see how vulnerable the 'haves' are?You can't have a sustainable world when two-thirds of it have their noses pressed against the glass."
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