FIRST LEGO League: Interview with Dean Kamen

Recently, the FIRST LEGO League announced their choice of “Food Factor” for their next challenge. (See article.)

Yesterday, Super Chef attended the FIRST LEGO League’s Global Innovation Award Ceremony in Washington, DC. The X Prize Foundation awarded $20,000 to a team of Girl Scouts (called the “Flying Monkeys”) from Iowa to help pay the costs of patenting their invention. What did they do? Devise a prosthetic device, already in use.

In one year’s time, a team from somewhere around the globe has the chance to win that prize for another invention — in the field of food safety.

Inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research & Development Corp. as well as founder of FIRST, was on hand to applaud the work of all teams involved in last year’s challenge.

Dean told Super Chef that, although he does not cook, one of his first inventions was a gadget to help his mother cook.

Mrs. Kamen baked cheesecakes a lot. When Dean and his brother would go in and out of kitchen, they would let the kitchen door slam behind them — and a cheesecake would collapse in the oven. Again and again, she would scold them. At one point, Dean became intrigued. Why should cheesecakes collapse? His curiosity led him to invent a lid for the cake pan with a valve. This valve allowed gases to escape slowly, which stopped the cheesecakes from collapsing:

I am not a chef, and I am not a chemistry guy. But I know the laws of physics. The Ideal Gas Law tells you that the pressure in a gas is proportional to its temperature.

He was only a teenager at the time. Over the years, he discovered numerous inventions, accumulating hundreds of patents, including the Segway PT.

He was enthusiastic about the choice of theme of Food Factor, with its focus on food safety.

Super Chef: What kinds of problems will teams tackle in the Food Factor challenge?

Dean Kamen: Safety is not just where it [your burger] got made and how it got produced. Once it goes inside this factory called your body, if what it is doing is gunking up the machinery –- that’s not safe.

Super Chef: How is this challenge different from previous ones?

Dean Kamen: Most of the previous challenges are obviously associated with inventing. Medical products – everybody is used to hearing about a new prosthetic device or a new piece of medical equipment, whereas I don’t think most people associate food with inventing. So, it is going to be an interesting year, because people are going to have to rethink the whole process of inventing.

Super Chef: How relevant is this challenge to daily life?

Dean Kamen: Almost everyone in this country can relate to obesity, especially childhood obesity and diabetes. Our idea is that through innovation we can make food healthier. We can make it more fun. We can deal with the fastest-growing epidemic among kids: diabetes and obesity.

The only place you can make a really big invention is in a place there is a really big problem. Solving a problem nobody has is never going to be a great invention!

Everybody can relate to this issue of “doesn’t that cupcake look good?” Everyone can relate to being lured into eating too much of the stuff we know isn’t good for us. What kinds of inventions can we create that will be attractive and accepted, and end up making a difference in people’s dealings with food?

Whether it is the preparation of food, the delivery of food, or the consumption of food, I think there is lots of room for invention.

We want to show kids that their choices matter, their decisions matter, their inventions matter.

For Food Factor to be successful, Dean Kamen says that FIRST LEGO League needs chefs around the world to get involved with teams in their communities. They need chefs to share their knowledge and understanding.

About Juliette Rossant

Juliette Rossant is an American author, journalist, and poet. Following publication of her book Super Chef (2004), she began an online magazine... (more)