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Segway inventor Dean Kamen brings his high-tech vision to Israel

by Dina Kraft

April 24, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Dean Kamen, with Israeli high school students who participated in a robotics competition he founded, shows off one of the devices from the event. Photo by Kobi Cantor

Dean Kamen, the multimillionaire inventor renowned for the Segway personal transporter, traveled to Israel with a message for teenagers: Careers in science will help make them the rock stars of their generation.

Taking a break from his current innovations, which include developing a robotic arm for U.S. war veterans injured in Iraq, Kamen brought his acclaimed international robotics competitions for high school students to Israel at the invitation of Israeli President Shimon Peres.

At the recent finals in a Tel Aviv stadium, rock music pounded through giant loudspeakers, while an announcer on roller skates introduced the competing teams. The teams' homemade robots zoomed across the floor, competing with one another for the number of times they could lift a huge foam ball over a bridge.

"Whether it's curing diseases or building engines or purifying water, there's just no limit to the number of huge opportunities there are out there for kids to do good while they are creating careers and making the world a more sane, livable place," said Kamen, 57.

"But it requires at a younger and younger age that kids develop skills and a passion to be able to create solutions to problems," he said. "They need mentors besides Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Shaquille O'Neal."

He hopes to hook teenagers on the power of science through robotics competitions run by an organization he founded called FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Kamen said a quarter of a million students in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Israel have taken part in the competitions, which they prepare for over the course of six weeks, together with a mentor who is an engineer.

For Kamen, who is Jewish, bringing his work to Israel has special meaning. He grew up hearing about Israel mostly from his grandmother, a dedicated Zionist.

"She was an Israel fanatic," Kamen said, laughing.

Kamen may have created the Segway, but most of his innovations are biomedical devices. In college, he created the first portable infusion pump for administering drugs, giving patients the freedom to be medicated without indefinite hospital stays.

With his engineering company, DEKA Research and Development Corp., Kamen has gone on to create dozens of other inventions, including a portable dialysis machine and a vascular stent.

Inventing has proved lucrative: Kamen lives in an estate with its own softball field and pilots his private jet to business meetings.

Currently, he's working on developing off-grid electricity and a water purification device for developing countries.

During his Israel visit last month, Kamen encouraged the tiny, resource-barren country to aggressively harness its intellectual resources.

"Israel's got to become a place that creates value based on intellectual achievement, not physical resources," he said. "The fact is that through technology, it has turned it into a garden. But now I think Israel has to stay ahead of the world of technology because it's the only shot you've got. You have to create wealth by creating among the children intellectual giants."

The robotics team of Coral Sofer, 16, from the northern Israeli town of Misgav, gathered around its robot during a break in the competitions, tightening screws and checking its mechanical limbs.

"This has been about using a different kind of thinking and really stretching our minds," she said.

Coral's team was one of six that scored well enough in the competition to advance to the international finals in Atlanta.

Kamen said he was inspired as a boy by the story of David and Goliath -- not for the traditional moral of the little guy taking on the giant, but because David found success through technology.

"He was this little guy David, and he had this really big problem, Goliath, and he took him out because he had a little piece of technology," he said. "And I thought, 'Wow, technology is cool.'"

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