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Citizen of the Year: Influence of inventor and innovator Dean Kamen extends beyond Manchester Millyard

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 31. 2017 12:33AM
Dean Kamen, shown talking about a steam engine he refurbished that dominates the entryway of his Bedford home, is founder of DEKA Research & Development Corp. and is spearheading the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
Past Union Leader Citizens of the Year
2016: Christopher Hickey, Manchester EMS coordinator
2015: Advocates in the war against opioid addiction
2014: The employees of Market Basket
2013: Jim Rubens of Etna, leader of Coalition against Expanded Gambling
2012: Michael Maloney, posthumously, Greenland police chief
2011: Judge Paul Moore, Mooremart
2010: David and Jaime Cates of Mont Vernon
2009: U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg
2008: Attorney General Kelly Ayotte
2007: Secretary of State William Gardner
2006: New Hampshire police officers
2005: Gov. John Lynch

MANCHESTER -- Dean Kamen doesn't go to bed until he's tired nor does he wake with an alarm clock.

He builds intricate clocks by hand but doesn't like to waste time.

The inventor known around the world began winding the clock on the Millyard's long comeback in the 1980s. He is trying to put the Millyard on the world map again with his ambition of assembling enough smart people to produce human tissue - and, some day, organs - commercially.

"Life is short," Kamen said in his office overlooking the Merrimack River. "The only thing - at least these days - we can't make more of is time, which I find frustrating."

The time appeared right for the New Hampshire Union Leader to name the Bedford inventor our New Hampshire Citizen of the Year.

"His FIRST robotics competition, which started here, has become a worldwide success that has inspired generations of young learners," said Union Leader and Sunday News Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid. "What he has done in Manchester's Millyard has been remarkable. What he is now doing by bringing the regenerative medicine project to Manchester and New Hampshire will be transformative."

Kamen spearheaded Manchester securing the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, or ARMI, which has about $294 million in government and private investment committed.

Kamen, whose name is on more than 1,000 U.S. and foreign patents, is credited with developing the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics, a wheelchair that climbs stairs, a home dialysis system, as well as Slingshot, a machine that purifies water for places lacking clean drinking water. He also came up with the Segway transportation device.

Ask him about his largest achievement and he says time will tell.

"My biggest accomplishments, I hope, haven't happened yet," said Kamen, 66.

"If you asked me five years ago, I wouldn't have said ARMI because it didn't exist," he said. "If we're sitting here five years from today, I hope we're talking about really new big ideas."

Michael Golway, who heads a Kentucky company involved in ARMI, last month called Kamen "a powerful visionary and somebody that I've come to admire and trust."

Kamen said being named New Hampshire's Citizen of the Year will amplify his voice. He thinks Manchester needs to improve its self-image.

"We should all be proud of what's going on in this city, and we should all be dedicated to making more of it happen more quickly," Kamen said. "We should make this city a fun, exciting, productive place that we all want to be in, and until we feel that way about it ourselves, we're not going to attract the rest of the world to want to come here."

"Sometimes, we are our own harshest critics," said Mike Skelton, CEO and president of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

"We are making great progress on this front as Manchester has garnered more positive national press and recognition on the innovation and growth of its Millyard in the past two years than it has in the past 10 years before that," he said.

Dean Kamen is founder of DEKA and ARMI. He stands in Manchester’s Millyard, where both ventures are based. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Millyard makeover

A Long Island native, Kamen came to New Hampshire in the early 1980s and chose to buy the smallest mill building with a parking lot to locate his company, DEKA Research & Development Corp., which then fit into a small section of one floor.

Today, DEKA employs about 500 people, spread over three entire mill buildings and part of at least one other.

Kamen estimates he has invested north of $50 million in buying and renovating empty mill buildings. He now owns eight mill buildings, including nearly every one on the eastern shore of the Merrimack between Bridge and Granite streets.

"To my mind, when it comes to the Millyard, Dean Kamen will ultimately be regarded with the same stature as the titans who helped make Manchester the site of the largest textile manufacturing company in the world," said John Clayton, executive director of the Manchester Historic Association.

"More than a century later, Dean saw the light, and a Millyard that once seemed doomed to a meeting with the wrecking ball is uniquely positioned to be the economic engine that will carry Manchester deep into the 21st century," Clayton said.

Kamen lives by a mantra of one step backward, two steps forward - just like the hands on the clocks he makes that move two minutes forward and one minute back during a 60-second span.

"I make more mistakes in a day than most people are willing to deal with in a lifetime," Kamen said. "I learned a long time ago it doesn't matter how many times you fall down as long as you stand up one more time than you fell down, you're doing just fine."

Few things stump him - unless it's a standardized test question someone showed him once asking why this guy named Dean Kamen always wears jeans and a work shirt.

"I read the four answers," he said. "I don't know which one of them is the right answer."

(For the record, he is spotted in them frequently because, he says, he's always working.)

Kamen said he decided he couldn't devote as much time as his parents did to child rearing and still be the inventor he envisioned.

"I don't like failing at things that I can't fix," Kamen said. "I was always afraid I might turn out to be a crummy parent, and that's a big responsibility."

But he gets to interact with some of the hundreds of thousands of students who participate in FIRST robotics and Lego competitions.

Inventor's habitat

Perched atop a hill with 360-degree views that sometimes include Boston's skyscrapers, the Bedford home Kamen designed contains a machine shop, an electronics shop and helicopter hangar on the first floor with living space on the second.

Kamen likes to downplay the expansive house, which features 17,867 square feet of living area and a $3.7 million assessment. He has one living room and a single TV, which he keeps in his bedroom to watch the news. But Kamen noted that the house was roomy enough to accommodate 500 recent partygoers.

Those guests probably would agree with Kamen's description of his home: "It's not a house; it's an environment."

A large steam engine Kamen refurbished is among the home's featured pieces. His late father, Jack, an illustrator, produced all the home's artwork, including one piece depicting the ship that once used that same steam engine. One wall contains photographs of several Presidents meeting with FIRST students. The property, which had wild turkeys roaming near its gated entrance one recent day, includes a pond used for heating and cooling the house.

By car, Kamen's commute to the Millyard runs about 15 minutes, but it can be completed in 90 to 120 seconds if he flies his helicopter, built by a company he once owned.

"I don't take vacations, but I would argue that at the end of working on a frustrating project here, getting into my helicopter to fly home and instead of taking 90 seconds to do it, fly up the river, fly down the river, look around, it's beautiful," he said. "So I just took a 17-minute vacation."

Old enough to collect Social Security, Kamen has put in enough time to take a vacation or retire, but don't expect him to clock out anytime soon.

"The word retirement seems to me like you gave up, you gave in," he said.

The toil involved

One thing that frustrates Kamen is how simplistically people view the process of invention.

“I think there is nothing further from the truth than you get up in the morning with this brilliant insight — this is what that product is going to be,” said Kamen, an inventor on more than 1,000 U.S. and foreign patents.

“I think at best you get an insight, which is after all the years of doing something this way that don’t seem to work or they just make it a little incrementally better, let me try that. Oh, and that leads to this and that looks a little better here and let’s not do that mechanically, let’s do that electronically,” he said.

“And suddenly you morph things and morph things enough, that all of a sudden, wow, the sum total of all these efforts, which include all these failures and blind alleys, suddenly what finally comes out is something that you’re proud of and every once in a while it turns out to be, you know, like a masterpiece,” he said.

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