Dean Kamen is, among other things, an inventor, entrepreneur, and leader in the technology and nonprofit fields.
The products he and his company, Manchester, NH-based DEKA Research & Development, have helped create over the years include the first portable insulin delivery system, an electronic wheelchair that can climb and descend stairs, a robotic prosthetic arm, and the Segway.
In December, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that Kamen, an Xconomist, would be helping to lead a coalition of 87 businesses, academic institutions, and other organizations in an effort to advance regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. The DoD said the mission of the consortium, known as the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, or ARMI, is to develop “next-generation manufacturing techniques for repairing and replacing cells, tissues and organs for wounded service members.” So far, ARMI has secured some $294 million in funding commitments, including $80 million in defense money.
Kamen recently spoke with Xconomy about how he got involved with the new initiative, what he and other project leaders are hoping to achieve with it, and other topics. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Xconomy: Why did you choose to pursue the field of regenerative medicine versus others?
Dean Kamen: I can’t say I got up one morning and decided to pursue it. I was actually asked to pursue it. I was approached by a number of people who basically said, “Hey Dean, we know you’re a technology guy. We know you play with all sorts of technologies.”
X: What are some of the reasons for launching this program, and what is it hoping to achieve?
DK: There’s a huge opportunity because there is mounting excitement in the laboratories, in the petri dishes, in the roller bottles, in 3D printing—which I have been doing for years, long before it was popular—that’s finding its way into the medical and biological research communities.
There’s all this great science going on but there aren’t a lot of companies that are looking for ways to take this magic out of the roller bottles—these one-at-a-time miracles—and go from science experiments to industrial scale to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people waiting for organs or tissue. And as this magic gets better and better at the scientific scale of all these labs and all these medical schools around the country, let’s create an opportunity for them to have the right tools to meet the needs—the desperate needs, in many cases—of people.
There’s loads of funding at the medical school level, at the biology level, at big pharma. But there aren’t a lot of industry people that are going to help bring this up to scale. It was actually very exciting and relatively easy to get some of the visionary leaders from the right industry to say, “Hey, count us in. Let’s make this happen.” They all said the same thing: “We’d love to bring our industry and our expertise to help the medical industry turn its dreams into reality.” So we did it.
X: How will you and other leaders at the institute decide which projects to fund?
DK: We’re desperately trying to figure that out. I told everybody the same thing: “Look, you all have your own vision. You all have some potential magic that you’ve already demonstrated in that petri dish or roller bottle. But we’ve got to get you all together to figure out what are the most important common needs that you all have.”
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