The iBOT: Inside Dean Kamen's mission to revolutionize the wheelchair

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Before the Segway made him famous, inventor Dean Kamen had already spent decades revolutionizing medical devices: infusion pumps, insulin pumps, stents, dialysis machines. Kamen's boldest idea, though, was the one he was really working on when he repurposed a few of its core engineering advances to create the stripped-down, recreational Segway. It was a far more advanced — and potentially life-altering — all-terrain electric wheelchair known as the iBOT. In celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Yahoo News presents an in-depth oral history of the mobility device now in its second, even more ambitious entry into the marketplace.

Listen to an audio-described version of the video.

Video Transcript


DEAN KAMEN: I'll bet your mother remembers two things about you as a kid. Your first words, that's pretty unique, humans speak, and your first steps. You got up and you probably fell on your butt. You had to learn not only to stand up, you had to learn to stand up and be stabilized.

And I said, how can it be back then, in the 20th century, we can put people on the moon, we can fly across the continent, and yet, a disabled person is given a wheelchair? A pathetic, inadequate, substitute for what you and I take for granted? And so I said, I've got to restore not just mobility, I've got to restore to somebody independence, dignity, access. We have to give them something that closely resembles that human ability to stand up and balance and walk.


LUCAS MERROW: Back in the early to mid '90s, Dean certainly had a reputation as an innovator and an inventor in the medical device field.

- He's one of this nation's most prestigious inventors. He's a sort of Thomas Edison in the medical world.

DEAN KAMEN: I made insulin pumps for people with diabetes. I made all sorts of small wearable devices for drug delivery. I made bigger devices for doing dialysis.

I made stints. I made mostly medical devices that had to do with moving, measuring, controlling fluids. So in my day job at Deka, you wouldn't think that making an iBot, a mobility device, would be the next logical step. It was an exciting technical challenge. But it wasn't soon. And I had spent a lot of time and a lot of money failing.

LUCAS MERROW: Before I got involved, a lot of the actual solutions they were working on were so complex and unwieldy, they really wouldn't help in the real world. So it was things like robotic legs that would sort of go out underneath the seating platform, and tank treads that would lift up and lift down to go up a flight of stairs. But then you had to carry it around with you on the machine all day when you weren't encountering any stairs.


DEAN KAMEN: So Lucas, a friend of his who he went to school with, one of his roommates at MIT, said to me, Dean, we need somebody to help define the business opportunity and find ways to make this thing a product.

LUCAS MERROW: My friend rang me up and said, there's something you need to come up and see. Dean's onto something pretty incredible. What Dean showed me was, essentially, a device with a lot of wires hanging off of it, some gyroscopes from his airplane, I think some small electric motors from a sewing machine, the guts of a desktop computer literally shoved underneath a metal platform that you could sit on. But when you plugged the two battery terminals in and gave it power, this machine basically stood upright.

Visually, it's such a stunning thing to see. And then when you actually sit in it and drive in it, it just feels so natural. And one of the challenges with medical device development is it's just really expensive.

DEAN KAMEN: And I went to J&J and then said, look, this thing is so far beyond the technology capability of any wheelchair company. You've got to help me.

LUCAS MERROW: Their Chief Medical Officer was, I believe, the first person to see this same prototype that I saw. He took it back to their CEO.

RALPH LARSEN: And I said, Bob, not on your life. We're not getting in the wheelchair business. I have no interest in the wheelchair business.

ROBERT Z. GUSSIN: And I said, Ralph, this isn't a wheelchair. I said, this is a mobility system, and I've never seen anything like it.

DEAN KAMEN: And J&J, world-class company that they are, said, we'll help you. And they spent well over $100 million going through the development, and the tooling, and the testing, and the testing, and the testing. And getting it through the FDA.

LUCAS MERROW: The technology around the iBot-- because it was so revolutionary, there was pretty extreme secrecy around it.

DEAN KAMEN: So every project inside, that guy ends up with some internal name. The first time we got the iBot to literally smoothly go up and down a flight of stairs, we said, it's light on its feet. It's light on its wheels. It's like it's dancing.

It's-- and a famous dancer, Fred Astaire. So we called the project "Fred Upstairs." But long before we launched it, some of my engineers and I realized, take the seat off it, take the cluster off it, put it on a platform, and go scooting around the lab. It was just a lot of fun. So we started on the Segway.

LUCAS MERROW: When the news got out, there was just a ton of attention.

ADAM PENENBERG: You want to keep control over the release of your product. Every company does. This opportunity was lost for him.

DEAN KAMEN: The day it came out, from that day forward, I'm known as "The Segway Guy." Well, the Segway came from the iBot.

LUCAS MERROW: My main job at the time was to keep everything else about the project under-wraps so that we could deliver on all the buzz that was out there.

BOB VOGEL: The first I'd ever heard of the iBot was just sort of inklings. And the first time I really got the full impact of it was the news story where John Hockenberry got up in an iBot.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And this isn't some exotic experimental device that no one is ever going to see. The builders of this machine intend that it's going to be used out in the world.

BOB VOGEL: I just thought, this-- this is amazing. It is a complete game-changer.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: How long, best guess, before this could actually be seen on the market?

ROBERT Z. GUSSIN: We think within 18 to 24 months. It's got to go through a rigorous FDA clearance procedure.

DEAN KAMEN: When we got it all done, although the FDA looked at us as completely different than wheelchairs, the other piece of government, CMS, the ones that decide what reimbursement should be, they said, that thing has got motors. It's got wheels. It's a motorized wheelchair.

We're going to reimburse it like a motorized wheelchair. And we said, the amount of stuff we have in this thing, just our material costs for gyroscopes, accelerometers, servos, high-performance batteries, costs more just to acquire some of those critical components then you reimburse for an entire wheelchair. Because a wheelchair is pretty junky stuff.

LUCAS MERROW: In a lot of respects, I think we overshot the mark.

BOB VOGEL: The introduction of the first iBot, as far as a business and getting it out to all the people, was a spectacular failure.

DEAN KAMEN: J&J appropriately said, Dean, we can't keep doing this. We helped you. We did this. We've got to stop.

- Johnson & Johnson stop producing the chair in 2009. The reason? Cost. The company only managed to sell a few hundred a year because Medicare only paid about $5,000 for the chair, which costs about $25,000 to make and sell.

DEAN KAMEN: I'm a physicist and a mathematician. Beautiful theories can be beautiful theories. But no matter how beautiful the theory is, the ugly fact wins.

And all I could say to them was, you've done a remarkable amount. We thank you. But could you do one more thing, since you're not going to go forward with it? Essentially, for $1, would you give it back to me so I can find a way to keep going? And they did.

BOB VOGEL: Like a lot of people that have followed the iBot, especially iBot fans, when I learned that it was going to come back and try and be improved, I was really excited. And then it took longer and longer.

DEAN KAMEN: My life is not a well-planned sequence of events. And I never give up if I believe in something and I don't see any better alternative. So I started working on the next generation.

LUCAS MERROW: Not long after I left Deka, I started a company, and it worked. And then we sold the company. Probably a week, I think it was, after, I got a phone call. [LAUGHS]

DEAN KAMEN: Hey, Lucas, I know that you were frustrated that we had this enormous capability. Come back. And this time, instead of partnering with anybody big, let's go and figure out how to officially, directly get this technology to the people that need it.

LUCAS MERROW: OK. I don't know how it's going to turn out. We learned a lot the first time around. We learned a lot about the technology.

We learned a lot about the business, and how to run it, and how not to run it. We'll give it a shot. Let's go for it.

DEAN KAMEN: So he came back! And he's now helping to build-out an entire organization to make the iBot a reality for so many people that need them.


LUCAS MERROW: From a business standpoint, it's very much taking the startup type of mentality.

DAWN HAMELINE: I came on as part of this team, and we were small. And so the users are an integral part of our team here at Mobius Mobility.

DEREK O'BRIEN: When I found out that they were working on the next generation, I knew from that point I had to be a part of it.

DAWN HAMELINE: And it's been pretty exciting to see some of the changes. As a therapist, I look at the buttons and the levers that we're using, and recognize that they might not all be easy to use for as many people as we like. Providing somebody with some level of assistive technology or the iBot does absolutely no good if it's not fitted to them properly.

DEAN KAMEN: And I said, let's make it so that we can pop different-sized seats on the base, so we can make units that'll help not just that 250-pound Special Forces guy that left his legs in Afghanistan, but that six-year-old little girl that needs a pink seat. Well, to do that, we'd have to go back to the FDA. And we did it.


LUCAS MERROW: Tonight is the launch of the new iBot.

- If the first iBot was a Model T, then this current new generation is a Ferrari.


BOB VOGEL: After years and years of buzz, I was afraid it wouldn't live up to it. And it exceeded it. I got an invite to go in to the factory and check it out. It was amazing.

LUCAS MERROW: The product is done. I mean, we'll always improve it, but the technology is proven. It was proven the first time around.

DAWN HAMELINE: I have to tell you, it's an absolute privilege to be in the position that I am, to provide people with mobility. That's something that's been taken away. And to give that back, it's a gift for me.

DEAN KAMEN: The problem I have is I don't have enough resources to do this myself and get them to the people that need them.

RALPH LARSEN: Right now, the biggest difficulty with the iBot is the price. It is, unfortunately, way out of reach for the average person. Certainly out of reach for me. I have dreams of it, but it's kind of like lotto dreams.

DAWN HAMELINE: I think one of the big limitations that we have is there's not enough research to understand the implications of assistive technology like the iBot on people's integration into society, or people's mental health, or their ability to participate in work. If we had that kind of data, we'd be able to really look at that cost-benefit ratio, and maybe make some new decisions about coverage.

LUCAS MERROW: What we need from policymakers is a framework which recognizes the value in activities that are beyond the basics, beyond the basics of getting from your bed to the bathroom. Getting to your job. Getting to your church.

Going out in the backyard with your kids. Going to the beach. Going to vacations. And actually being able to do those things much more on your own, if not entirely on your own.

And there's all these costs to the current reimbursement model which aren't tracked. They don't they don't correlate the fact that, oh, you had to modify your house. You had to modify your car.

Maybe you're taking medicines because you're depressed because you can't get out more. And recognizing, in a common framework, those different outcomes and those different health care costs for innovations like the iBot to help people with disabilities, I think, is something that has to happen. It's just the right thing to do.

DEAN KAMEN: The thing I find most frustrating about smart people is they seem to be, these days, particularly willing to say, I've identified the problem. That's good enough. As a kid, I was whining and complaining about something.

And my father, who was a very easygoing guy, looked at me and said, Dean, if it's not that important, stop complaining about it. If it is that important, don't complain about it. Fix it. Do something about it. I've spent my life trying to fix things that need to be fixed, to do something about serious problems.

LUCAS MERROW: We have to show people with disabilities that they are deserving of the same level of innovation, and technology, and product that every other consumer base in this country has access to.

DEAN KAMEN: If we don't make iBots, I don't even see on the horizon anybody making anything that can give people that kind of capability and access and dignity that they will get if we gave them an iBot. We have to make this succeed.